What to do When a Loved One Passes Away


Volume 4 • Issue 1 • January 2014

The Counselor is a monthly newsletter of Hallock & Hallock dedicated to providing useful information on estate planning, business succession planning and charitable planning issues. This month's issue will discuss how to deal with the passing of a loved one.  If you are interested in learning more about the ideas and processes discussed in this newsletter please contact us for an initial consultation.

Losing a loved one can be one of life’s most difficult trials. Yet even during the emotional turmoil that follows, there are many important and sometimes urgent decisions to be made. The person who usually makes these decisions is the husband or wife of the person who has died (the “Decedent”). But the burden can also fall on the shoulders of a child, sibling, parent, or close friend. Regardless of who is making the decisions and how they are handling the situation they will have a number of tasks to accomplish in the months following the Decedent’s death.

This newsletter is meant to help anyone dealing with or preparing for the death of a loved one to gain an understanding of the events and tasks that generally take place at the passing of a loved one. A second purpose is to give you guidance as to how you can make the process simpler and less stressful for your loved ones when you pass away.

Note: This is not an all-inclusive or a completely comprehensive list. Taking care of the estate of a deceased loved one is often unique. As such, this list is meant to be an example, an aid, and a guide to address common tasks and events that occur when a loved one passes away. Additionally, you do not need to wait for a loved one to pass away before addressing many of the items discussed in this list. Discussing these items with a loved one before they pass away will make the process much simpler.

Immediate Actions

  1. Obtain a legal pronouncement of Decedent’s death. If a doctor is not present at the time of death then you’ll need to contact someone to do this. If the Decedent dies at home, call 911, and, if it exists, have in hand a “do-not-resuscitate” document (otherwise paramedics will generally start emergency procedures).

  2. Arrange for transportation of the body. If no autopsy is needed then the body can be picked up by a mortuary or crematorium.

  3. Notify doctor. Notify the Decedent’s primary physician or the county coroner of the Decedent’s passing.

  4. Notify family. Notify close family and friends of the Decedent’s death (get help from friends or family members to do this).

  5. Care for Decedent’s dependents. Ensure that the Decedent’s dependents and/or pets are cared for.

  6. Notify Decedent’s employer. If the Decedent was employed at the time of death then notify his/her employer. Request information about benefits, any pay due, and whether there was a life insurance policy through the company.

Almost Immediate Actions

  1. Find funeral and burial plans. Search for the Decedent’s funeral or burial plans and/or preferences. These are often included in or with estate planning documents. Also search for any anatomical gift preferences.

  2. Determine Decedent’s associations. If the Decedent was in the military or belonged to a fraternal or religious group, then contact that organization.

  3. Contact mortuary. Contact a mortuary or crematorium to arrange for the funeral.

  4. Care for Decedent’s home. Ensure that someone is watching over and caring for the Decedent’s home.

  5. Beware of scams. As you deal with the estate of the Decedent, beware of scams. There are plenty of people out there who send bills for unordered merchandise or unperformed services to take advantage of people in your situation.

Post-Funeral Actions

  1. Collect all important documents. Search for and collect all of the Decedent’s important documents. These documents include, but are not limited to the following: wills, trusts, marriage license, post/pre-nuptial agreements, divorce documentation, birth certificate of Decedent and Decedent’s children, social security numbers of Decedent and Decedent’s children, tax returns (including any gift tax returns), pension and retirement benefits, insurance policies, veteran’s discharge papers, bank account information, notes receivable, securities, business ownership documents, leases, digital asset information, titles to motor vehicles, and/or any unpaid bills.

  2. Determine whether or not there is a will or a trust. If the Decedent did not leave a will or a trust then you will need to go through the probate process to administer the Decedent’s estate according to state law. If the Decedent left a will, but not a trust, then you will still need to go through the probate process to prove and administer the estate according to the terms of the will. If the Decedent left a properly functioning trust, then probate can be avoided and the trustee can administer the estate according to the terms of the trust.

  3. Consider hiring an attorney. Discussing your specific circumstances with an attorney can help set you in the right direction and determine whether or not a probate needs to be filed. Hiring an attorney can help ease the burden of the entire process by helping you understand the requirements and steps that need to be taken. An attorney can also help transfer and retitle assets correctly, avoid unnecessary costs associated with probate, avoid unnecessary conflicts and disputes, and answer any number of questions associated with the estate of the Decedent and your responsibilities in administering the estate.

  4. Death certificates. Obtain as many certified copies of the Decedent’s death certificate as you will need.

  5. Wind up personal affairs. Wind up the personal affairs of the Decedent by doing, among other things, the following: forwarding mail, canceling credit cards, stopping social security payments, canceling utilities and requesting any deposit refunds, informing the landlord and requesting any deposit refunds, changing locks to the house, and checking for any litigation involving the Decedent.

  6. Create an inventory of the Decedent’s estate. Create an inventory of the Decedent’s estate that includes all of the assets owned by the Decedent at the time of death. In addition to obvious assets (real property, automobiles, investments, bank accounts, etc.) it may also include valuable tangibles, safe deposit boxes, survivor benefits, and any amounts owed to Decedent (e.g. tax refunds, promissory notes, etc.).

  7. Apply for benefits. Apply for any benefits associated with the Decedent, such as life insurance policies, retirement plans, veterans’ benefits, and social security benefits.

  8. Retitle assets. If necessary, retitle all of the assets that have a title, such as the Decedent’s house, cars, insurance, credit cards, bank accounts, and investments.

  9. Consider hiring an accountant. Hiring an accountant can help you appropriately deal with the income tax and estate tax issues associated with the Decedent’s estate.

Again, this list only addresses some of the most common issues that come up in relation to the death of a loved one.  Many (if not all) situations are unique and as such, this list cannot cover every possible issue you might face.  Therefore, if you are unsure of how to proceed, it is highly recommended that you seek legal advice to ensure that the estate of your loved one is being taken care of in the appropriate manner.

How can you prepare to make this process simpler for your loved ones?

Dealing with the death of a loved one will never be easy and at this point you might not be able to do much to simplify the process of dealing with your loved one’s death, but you can take certain steps to reduce the stress associated with your own death.  First, you should take the time to do your own estate planning to ease the burden for those you leave behind.  At the very least, you should have a will in place to communicate some of your desires and to encourage a smooth transition and transfer of your estate.  A will determines to whom your possessions will be transferred at your passing and can greatly reduce conflict and dispute within your family.  In addition to all the benefits of a will, having a trust in place can substantially lessen the burden placed on your loved ones by allowing them to avoid going to court to deal with the probate process.

Second, you should keep all of your estate planning documents in a secure location and let your loved ones know of the location and how to access them.  It is recommended that you secure your documents in a fire-proof safe or a safe deposit box to which you give trusted loved ones access. However, if you choose to use a safe deposit box be aware that there are inherent risks with doing so.

It is often said that failing to plan is planning to fail.  But in the case of estate planning, failing to plan isn’t necessarily planning to fail, it’s deciding to use the government’s default plan instead of your own. So begin your estate planning today and help to make dealing with your estate less stressful and simpler for your loved ones.

This Newsletter is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact an attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between Hallock & Hallock and the reader.