As your estate planning attorneys, we are here to help you when your family member or loved one dies. If you are simply too overwhelmed to call us during the first couple of weeks after your loved one passes away, it is important to keep in mind that there are several practical and legal considerations that the person named as the executor of the estate or trustee of the trust should address in the initial weeks following the death, prior to the administration of the estate or trust. During this stressful and emotional period, it is easy to forget about certain tasks which may lead to problems if left undone, as well as important legal considerations you must heed. Here is a list of some important initial steps:
Checklist of Initial Responsibilities
- Make burial arrangements. If some time is likely to pass before burial, for example, if there will be a delay prior to a special ceremony and burial in a veteran’s cemetery, make arrangements with your funeral home to store your loved one’s remains until the service.
- Obtain ten original certified death certificates. After someone passes away, their death should be registered with the local or state vital records office, which can then issue official death certificates. A state-licensed funeral director or coroner typically prepares and files the death certificate with the state. A death certificate is often required to claim life insurance benefits, close bank accounts, transfer titles, and take care of other matters connected to your loved one’s estate.
- Ascertain the immediate needs of beneficiaries and expenses that must soon be paid. Determine which of your loved one’s accounts contains cash that can be accessed for the beneficiaries’ needs and other expenses. The last thing you want is for an item to be repossessed or the electricity turned off due to non-payment.
- Arrange care for animals. If your loved one had pets or other animals, you should immediately arrange care for them. Your loved one’s will or trust may name the person your family member has chosen to care for them, but if there was no will or trust, you may need to arrange for someone to look after the animals until a caretaker can be determined.
- Inspect your loved one’s home to make sure it is secure. If your family member owned a home, walk around the home to make sure any points of entry are locked and that there are no maintenance issues that need to be addressed. Notify the police department that the home will be vacant so police can patrol the area more frequently.
- Change the locks. It is important to change the locks on the home to ensure that neighbors, service providers (maids, dog walkers, etc.), and even family members who had keys are no longer able to enter the home. This is important to ensure that no one prematurely removes any property from the home, even if they are well-intentioned.
- Remove valuables from the home and store them in a secure place. Jewelry, cash, works of art, furs, and other especially valuable property should be kept in a safe place until the estate or trust is administered and the items are transferred to the proper beneficiary. Check on the insurance coverage for these items.
- Secure vehicles. Any cars your family member owned should be locked. No one should drive the car, and the odometer should be checked to determine the mileage at the time your loved one passed away. If the car is parked on the street or in a driveway, you should notify the police to keep a closer eye on it. Insurance on the car should be maintained.
- Arrange for the home and yard to be maintained. Continue lawn care and general home maintenance to ensure that the house does not become an eyesore and a target for thieves.
- Discontinue services that are no longer needed, and hire any new personnel required by a beneficiary or dependent. If your deceased loved one had domestic help, security guards, or assistants that are no longer needed, stop the services after checking any contracts or written agreements. If a beneficiary or dependent now needs the help of an assistant or maid, hire the necessary workers to ensure they receive the proper care.
- Leave the heat or air conditioning on. To prevent any problems that may arise as a result of very high or very low temperatures, it is important to continue to heat and cool the home. In addition, if the home is vacant during cold winter months, a faucet should be turned on to prevent pipes from freezing and bursting.
- If required, alert local officials of the vacant home. In some jurisdictions, a higher tax rate is applied to vacant homes, so in those places it is important to notify the city if the home is vacant and part of an estate administration.
- Contact agencies to cancel benefits. If your family member was receiving Social Security, veterans, or other benefits, notify the relevant agency of the death. Do not cash any benefits checks that arrive after death, and if any benefits are received covering a period after death, they should be returned. Depending on the timing of your family member’s death, the government agency may automatically withdraw the last electronic payment.
- Cancel subscriptions and monthly service agreements. If your loved one was receiving a newspaper, magazine, or other regular subscription or monthly service, it is important to cancel them, and if applicable, request a refund.
- Cancel credit cards and charge accounts. Notify all of your loved one’s credit card companies of the death and close the accounts as soon as possible. It is also important to notify all three major credit bureaus of the death to avoid identity theft.
- Locate insurance policies. Find all your loved one’s insurance policies. Call the homeowner’s insurance company to confirm that there is coverage for fire, flood, and/or other needed items as part of the homeowner’s insurance policy. In addition, locate your family member’s life insurance policies, which may have been issued by alumni associations, travel clubs, credit card companies, trade associations, etc.
- Gather personal records. Locate all bank statements, checkbooks, canceled checks, and at least the past three years of income tax returns.
- Determine if anyone owed money to your loved one. While gathering the needed personal records, check to see if there are any documents reflecting debts owed to the deceased individual. Contact those individuals to collect the amounts owed.
Legal Considerations to Keep in Mind
- Once your loved one has passed away, anyone authorized by a power of attorney to act on his or her behalf is no longer valid. Therefore, if a family member was in charge of paying the deceased person’s bills as an agent under a financial power of attorney, that person should stop paying those bills after the individual has died. The executor of the will or trustee of the trust is now the proper person to handle those matters.
- If your family member made arrangements for his or her funeral in advance utilizing a document such as a Remembrance and Services Memorandum, the deceased person’s written instructions may be legally binding under state law, and thus, the survivors may be obligated to comply with them. It is also possible that your family member prepurchased their funeral arrangements through a local funeral home.
- If any of your loved one’s property or money was not part of his or her trust at the time of death or was not made a part of the trust at the time of death automatically, that money or property must be handled through the probate process. That is, the money or property cannot be distributed to anyone, including the trust, without involvement by the probate court.
- If there is any possibility that you or any other family member may want to disclaim any money or property you will inherit, it is important not to take any action that would be considered an acceptance of the inheritance. For example, if you are one of the beneficiaries of your loved one’s life insurance, but decide that you would like for your share to go to the next beneficiary in line, do not complete any paperwork or accept checks involving the life insurance policy.
- Do not prematurely distribute any of your loved one’s property or funds. The executor of the will or trustee of a trust are the only individuals allowed to distribute your loved one’s money or property and must pay all debts and taxes before transferring any funds or property to the beneficiaries.
Call Us As Soon As Possible
Although you can take care of many of these initial concerns on your own, the administration of your loved one’s estate or trust can be quite complex. Even small mistakes could end up being a major headache. It is important to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to help you with probate or trust settlement and/or administration, as well as any other legal matters that may arise during this difficult and emotional time. Our goal is to provide you with peace of mind by guiding you through the administration and settlement of your family member’s trust or estate, so please call us as soon as you can.