Someone Just Died. What Do I Do?

Someone Just Died.  What Do I Do?

A long-time client passed away recently and his family felt stressed and confused about what needed to be done right away. His widow asked me to prepare a checklist for others to follow so that the next family might feel more at peace knowing what needs to be done right away. Some folks think the lawyer is the first call to make, but in reality, the lawyer does not really get involved until about fourteen days after a death.

What to Do Immediately

Immediately after a loved one dies, you need to be sure to take care of yourself. Take a moment to process your grief and acclimate to your situation. Reach out to a neighbor, friend or family member for support.

Your first task is to get a declaration of death. When a person dies in a hospital or continuing care facility, a physician in that facility will make that determination. The next-of-kin or a person designated under a Health Care Power of Attorney will need to sign a form with the facility that releases the remains to a funeral home.

When a person dies at home, you should call the hospice nurse, if one has been assigned. If not, call 911 and the emergency squad will make the determination of death. If the deceased signed a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ order, be sure to have a copy handy when the Emergency Medical Technicians arrive. Once the death has been determined, the next step is to call the funeral home.

The Role of the Funeral Home

The first task in estate administration is often to plan the funeral or memorial service. The funeral home plays a crucial role in making arrangements, coordinating the funeral service and burial, and producing the death certificates. The funeral home will notify the Social Security Administration of the death. Later, anyone entitled to survivor benefits will need to go to a Social Security office to claim those benefits.

Locate any burial wishes your loved one left behind—these can relate to hymns, readings, pallbearers, burial wishes, and sometimes a wish for a simple service or no service.

If the deceased was an active member of a religious group, reach out to that community and they will help plan the funeral. If the deceased was not part of a local religious community and wants a religious ceremony, the funeral home will take point on finding clergy and musicians for the service.

Paying for the funeral can be a short-term cash-flow issue and a long-term solvency issue. Determine what the budget is for the funeral and who will pay for the services or front the funds for later reimbursement. Veterans may benefit from VA burial benefits and some fraternal organizations have burial benefits.

Planning a funeral service, wake, and reception can be daunting—like planning a wedding with a few days’ notice. Enlist friends and family and accept their help. Have someone help track gifts and flowers so you can thank the donors later if you wish.

Writing an obituary for the deceased can be cathartic. You may want to prepare it yourself or delegate the task to a close friend who is gifted in prose. See our November 2016 newsletter for guidance on how to write an obituary. (Archived copies of our newsletters are available on our website: under the Resources tab.)

Securing Property

The adage that things “grow legs and walk off” around a funeral can be true. Grieving and/or opportunistic family members and friends have been known to enter a residence and take things that they want, that they think they are entitled to, and that they think they deserve. More than once I have received a call from a widow/widower who returns from a funeral to find the bedroom set missing as the step-kids have already taken it. The easiest solution is to change the locks as soon as possible or add some other level of security. Having someone stay in the house will increase security and keep the property insurable as insurers hate covering a vacant home.

You will also want to locate wallets/purses and cell phones and keep them somewhere safe. Car keys are not as important as the car is easily tracked and cannot be easily re-titled or sold immediately.

In the two weeks between a death and the initial legal meeting, keep an eye on the incoming mail for important papers. Don’t fill out a forwarding order until you have the proper authorization. Watch out for and compile the following incoming correspondence:

    • Bank and brokerage statements
    • Life insurance and IRAs
    • Social Security, pensions, Veterans Affairs benefits

Utilities and other bills can wait. You should not use your personal funds to cover the debts of the estate, and you won’t have the legal authority to use estate assets until after you meet with the attorney. If a creditor pressures you, tell them of the death and that the estate will pay later when it is able—extensions are freely given to estates.

Look for information and papers you will need for the estate administration:

  • Look for the original Will and/or Trust. (Our firm’s documents are kept in blue binders with ‘JOHNSON, GASINK & BAXTER LLP’ clearly embossed on the spine.)
  • Identify the lawyer and financial/tax advisors.
  • Locate insurance policies and deeds.
  • If the deceased was a veteran, find the DD-214 form.

Slow down. Many survivors manage grief by trying to do everything at once. Do not go to court, sign legal releases, or pay heirs before talking to your attorney. You do not need to notify the bank or any credit agency of the death until you meet with the attorney.

Initial Meeting with the Lawyer to Begin the Formal Administration

About two weeks after the death, the person named executor or trustee will have their initial meeting with the estate attorney. If no one is designated to manage the estate, whichever family member(s) that intends to administer the estate should attend the meeting. In that meeting, the attorney will ask questions about the type of assets, their value and any beneficiary designations. Estates take many routes and each one is different. Without taking the time to review the real estate, accounts, and other property, the attorney cannot give good advice on the general process or a specific next step.

After the initial meeting, the estate administration begins in earnest. Prepare for a steady process of paperwork punctuated by long waits. A Trust Estate is usually settled within a year. A Probate Estate typically takes 18 months to 3 years. Lots of things cause delays that can slow the process well beyond those ranges.

How Can I Make This Process Easier for My Family?

To make things easier for your executor or trustee, here are a few simple steps:

  1. Execute a Will or Trust plan and make sure it is up-to-date and consistent with your wishes.
  2. Organize your important papers (JGB binders have a ‘personal information’ section to help you organize this information):
    1. Will/Trust,
    2. vital records, like marriage and birth certificates,
    3. insurance policies,
    4. bank, brokerage and stock statements,
    5. tax records,
    6. list of advisors,
    7. DD-214 and pension information, if applicable.
  3. Tell your executor/trustee where to find these papers.

Again, you should be sure you have an estate plan and verify that it is up to date to make things quicker and easier for your heirs. Don’t hesitate to call us at 757.220.9800 to make an estate plan, to check-up on your estate plan or for help administering the estate of a loved one.

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