Losing a loved one is a painful part of life. Being the one responsible for closing their affairs can make that painful time even more difficult. While this list is certainly not exhaustive, it is a place to start when you’re wondering what to do when someone dies.
First, follow any requests your loved one had regarding their body. Was your loved one an organ donor? If so, you have a narrow window to make those arrangements. Did your loved one leave burial, cremation, or body donation instructions? Few people have preneed, also known as prepaid, arrangements where not only are the arrangements paid for, but their wishes are also laid out in detail. Consider yourself lucky if your loved one did this. If not, some will leave instructions at least regarding a preference for burial or cremation. Finally, and most difficult, you may need to make that decision yourself based on what you think your loved one would want. You will need to choose a funeral home quickly or ahead of time as they will be responsible for taking the body when your loved one has passed away. Your funeral director will be able to walk you through the specifics of making the arrangements, spreading the word about the service, preparing the obituary, etc.
Your funeral director will also assist you in ordering death certificates. Order more death certificates than you think you need. I tell my clients to order at least 15, if not more. Almost every institution you deal with will require a death certificate as proof your loved one has passed away. Few institutions will accept a copy. You will want to have several extras for yourself in the event something comes up even years down the line. It’s important to note that it takes two to three weeks after your loved one dies to get the death certificates. Due to this, you will likely have to wait several weeks to begin accessing their assets.
Second, begin securing your loved one’s assets. The first asset you should secure is the home. Unfortunately, there are many predators who look to profit when someone passes away and the number one target is a person’s home. It is important to make sure all doors and windows are securely locked. You may even consider installing security cameras, especially if the house may remain vacant for an extended period. Someone should stay at the home during the funeral or memorial service to head off a break in. Be sure to remember any pets in the home. Find a temporary caretaker for the pets until a permanent solution can be found.
Have your loved one’s mail redirected so mail sitting in an unchecked box is not intercepted and used to gain information about accounts. You can do this by notifying the post office and completing a forwarding mail slip. This step is also critical so you can begin understanding what assets and debts your loved one had. It is not your responsibility (unless you are a co-owner, co-signor, guarantor, etc.) to pay your loved one’s debts. However, you may choose to pay certain bills, such as home utilities, to keep things in order. You should begin making a list of assets and debts for when you meet with an attorney.
Be sure that your funeral director has notified Social Security. If they have not, or if you are not sure, call your local Social Security office yourself and notify them. It is not uncommon for payments made after the death of individual to be recalled and for Social Security to demand repayment. As a general rule, do not spend money Social Security has deposited into a loved one’s account after their death or shortly before their death.
Notify all insurance companies and Medicare. On occasion, someone may try to continue to claim your loved one’s benefits after they die. It is important to notify all their insurance companies and Medicare of their death, so they stop paying any benefits billed after their date of death. Additionally, you may find some policies have a small death benefit payment. It is also important to notify all vehicle insurance, homeowner’s insurance, etc. of your loved one’s death. You should maintain insurance on these assets for the time being, but many policies have a requirement you notify them when the policy holder dies. You may need to cancel that policy and have a new policy issued with you as the policy holder.
During this time, you also want to begin notifying banks, credit card companies, mortgage companies, credit reporting agencies, gyms, social media accounts, election board, etc. Any place where you loved one did business or held an account you want to start the process of cancelling those accounts. You may find you are not able to move forward with this until you receive a death certificate or until the will has been probated.
Third, make an appointment with a probate attorney and your CPA. An attorney can help you determine if probate or a trust administration is required. Probate is the legal process of administering a deceased person’s estate. In simpler terms, probate allows a person (often called an executor) to step into someone’s shoes who has passed away and carry out any necessary business.
You should bring several things to this meeting. First, you should bring an original death certificate. Second, you should bring a list of all the deceased’s assets with as much detail as you have. Third, you should bring a list of all the deceased’s debts with as much detail as you have. Finally, be sure to bring a list of questions. It is not uncommon to have difficulty remembering your questions when you first meet with an attorney.
It is also important to make an appointment with your CPA. You may be required to file a tax return for the year when your loved one passed away. Your CPA can help you in that process as well as answer any tax related questions you may have.
Finally, remember to take care of yourself. Every person mourns loss differently. No matter your way of grieving, be sure to make time for it and know these tasks will still be there. Be sure to enlist the help of others so you are not taking this on alone.