Losing a loved one is traumatic, regardless of whether you see it coming or whether it occurs unexpectedly. While it is difficult to think about logistics during the grieving process, certain things need to be done in order to ensure that your loved one’s affairs and estate are handled properly.
Here’s a checklist that should offer some assistance during this difficult time:
Notify the proper parties and authorities. If the death occurs in a hospital or while in hospice care, the organization will take care of notifying the proper authorities and will assist you in making arrangements for the transporting the remains. If the death occurs at home, call the police or 911 for assistance.
Contact relatives and close friends. Seek assistance from family and friends in making funeral arrangements. Often, the best approach is to find one person to take the lead and delegate certain tasks to various people. For instance, one person might be in charge of assisting with paying the bills, while another person assists with making the funeral arrangements. By dividing up the tasks, no one person is left with the burden of completing all the necessary tasks.
Make funeral arrangements. In order to make the funeral arrangements, it may be necessary to locate certain documents determine if your loved one had expressed his wishes regarding whether he wanted to be buried or cremated. There are several documents that may contain this information. First, if the deceased had a pre-paid funeral contract or other arrangement with a funeral home, you should contact the funeral home as soon as possible in order to begin arranging for the funeral. The funeral home will handle many of the details as provided in the contract and can help you with other items such as ordering death certificates. If there was no such arrangement, then you should check the deceased’s last will and testament (if he has one) to see if there are any wishes stated regarding burial or cremation arrangements. In Texas, it is also possible to execute an advance directive appointing an agent responsible for disposing of your remains, so if this document exists you should provide it to the funeral home.
Locate important documents. Hopefully the deceased had a proper estate plan in place and let his close friends or family know where those documents are located. For more information, see my previous post regarding the importance of letting people know where your estate planning documents are located. If the deceased had a last will and testament, you should seek the advice of a probate attorney to determine if it will be necessary to probate the will and what type of administration procedure should be followed. If the decedent resided in Houston, then Harris County probate courts will usually be the proper venue for administering the estate. If the decedent died outside of Harris County, such as in Montgomery County or Fort Bend County, the County Courts at Law in those counties will usually be where the administration process will occur. If the deceased kept estate planning documents in a safe deposit box which the bank will not allow you to access, your probate attorney can help you work with the bank to retrieve the documents.
In addition to estate planning documents, you should locate any documents related to any other property or accounts that the decedent may have (such as a life insurance policy, bank account and credit card statements, mortgage documents, etc.). This information will be important to ensure that any life insurance policy proceeds can be collected and in knowing what assets, debts and obligations the deceased may have had when he died. Most of these organizations will require a certified death certificate. If you need additional copies of the death certificate, the funeral home can assist you, or you can order them online here.
Other notifications. As soon as it’s practical, begin reaching out to other parties with whom the deceased had business or financial arrangements with such as:
• Social Security Administration. If the decedent was receiving social security payments, it is important to let the SSA know as soon as possible to stop payment in order to avoid problems later on. If the deceased was married or had minor or disabled children, the surviving spouse or children may be eligible for additional benefits. You can get more information here.
• U.S. Post Office. If there is no longer anyone living in your loved one’s place of residence, you will need to have his mail forwarded to a new address so that you receive any important correspondence.
• Financial institutions. This includes any banks or credit unions where the deceased had any accounts such as checking, savings, investment, loan, or credit cards. Many of these financial institutions will require documentation before you can access or change any account information. Usually what they ask for are Letters Testamentary, which are issued to the executor when the last will and testament is admitted to probate. Your attorney will assist you in obtaining the Letters Testamentary if they are needed.
• Employer. You should notify the deceased’s employer as soon as possible in order to speak with their human resources department. They will be able to assist you with items such as retirement benefits, any accrued sick or vacation pay, life insurance and other death benefits.
• Insurance companies. You should not cancel any auto or home policies until the assets are disposed of or distributed during the estate administration process. If you are the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, you can work directly with the insurance company to collect any proceeds payable under the policy.
• Accountants and Attorneys. If the deceased had a CPA or attorney who assisted him with his tax or business interests, they should be contacted to ensure that any necessary income tax returns are timely filed in order to avoid any IRS penalties or interest, as well as to make sure that any required filings for any business entity remain up to date. Your probate attorney should be able to assist you with any necessary filings concerning estate taxes.
While this list should provide some assistance with what actions to take immediately after a loved one dies, the estate administration process can take much longer and will generally be dealt with by the executor or administrator of the estate with the help of an attorney. A good probate attorney will be able to guide you through the process of administering the estate in the most efficient and cost-effective manner possible.