What To Do First When a Loved One Dies

By: Marc S. Levine, Esquire

Published: May 20, 2019

What are some of the practical considerations when a loved one dies? A lot of my work [or “an estate planning attorney’s work”] with clients is about planning for some low-probability / high-impact events – such as early or unexpected death, as well as planning for the reality that all of us will pass. This is one of the most important aspects of what we do – helping people navigate what can be a complicated maze of what has to be done after someone dies.

Right after Death

There are a number of things that have to be dealt with from a practical point of view, including:

  • Arranging for a determination of death by a doctor or by arranging for someone to come and do the pronouncement. If hospice was involved, they will guide you. If they were not, contact 911.
  • Determine the decedent’s wishes for the funeral, service, and body. If he/she had a medical directive or will, review it to see what the wishes were and get in touch with a mortuary or a crematorium, to transport the body. Make sure you confirm the cost with them over the phone. The funeral home will help you to obtain multiple death certificates that will be needed for financial institutions, government agencies, and insurers.
  • Contact family, including dependent children and other dependent family members (including older parents), close friends, and, where appropriate, colleagues to help, and to notify other family and friends. Although there may be very specific plans about what ultimately happens with children, parents, and pets, the first and most important responsibility is to make sure they are cared for in the short term.
  • Contact the church, synagogue, or mosque, if appropriate.
  • If no one will be living in the home, make sure you secure it (and its contents) as a vacant home is a target.
  • Arrange for someone to collect their mail (until it can be forwarded), and water plants. The information in the mail will be vital in dealing with issues later, so make sure someone keeps track of it.

The next step is to see if your loved one had done any estate planning. If so, locate the last will and testament or revocable trust and, ideally, contact the estate planning attorney to find out preferences for burial, cremation, service, etc., and if there was a prepaid plan. Your loved one, if in the military or belonging to a fraternal or religious group may have burial benefits available to them, or the organization may conduct funeral services.

Soon After Death

While most other things that have to happen are not urgent, the best next step is to contact the decedent’s trust and estates attorney, if he/she has one, or yours. If not, schedule a meeting to review what estate administration issues there will be, including:

  • What assets there are;
  • What assets will pass directly to the beneficiaries through a beneficiary designation or if they were owned jointly with rights of survivorship;
  • What assets pass through a revocable trust, if there is one;
  • What assets pass through probate if there is no revocable, and sometimes even if there is one.

Remember to have a detailed discussion with the attorney regarding how they get paid and do not agree to any “default” systems provided by the state.

Even where all assets appear to be joint or beneficiary designation, there may be tax issues, tax filing issues, or complications in determining how the last and continuing expenses will be handled.

Call the person’s employer, if he or she were working. Request information about benefits and any pay due. Ask whether there was a life insurance policy through the company.

Assuming your loved one was a Federal government employee, or retiree, review this site: https://www.handlerlevine.com/resources/federal-employee-information-links/, which has the information needed for applying for Federal benefits like the retirement annuity, last paycheck/accrued leave, life insurance, and the Thrift Savings Plan account. If his/her agency has agency-specific benefits, make sure you contact the human resources department in that agency.

Next and Ongoing

If a probate estate will be necessary, then the executor (you, or the person named in the Will), needs to submit the Last Will and Testament (if any) to the county to be accepted for probate. Once probate is open it is vital that estate assets be kept separate from personal assets and that all of the assets be collected into estate accounts or ownership.

The executor is responsible for allowing accounting for all probate assets, as well as determining if a personal tax return (State and Federal) is due for the deceased, and ensuring that the appropriate estate (“fiduciary”) tax return is filed. Check with the estate attorney to find out if an estate tax return is necessary or advisable.

Ongoing issues for the estate, or even when there is no probate estate, include:

  • Maintain hazard insurance policies on real estate (often hard to do with vacant homes);
  • Make sure the mortgage is up to date, even if funds must be borrowed (as long as there is sufficient equity in the house);
  • Cancel purchases for travel, but check if insurance is available on them;
  • Make sure all credit card statements are available and in possession, then cancel credit cards issued to the decedent;
  • File claims for medical reimbursement and casualty insurance;
  • Determine and then pay (after the claim period expires) claims, expenses, and taxes of the decedent and of his or her estate in consultation with the Court or an estate attorney;
  • In consultation with the Court or an estate attorney, make a final distribution of the probate assets.

Take care of yourself. The job of dealing with someone’s death is not only full of details, inanities, and bureaucracy but often mourning as well. Remember that while there is a great deal to do, the process allows time for mourning interspersed with the need for action.

Mr. Marc Levine, Esquire has been practicing with his firm, Handler & Levine, LLC, and its predecessor firms, since 1992. Mr. Levine regularly represents individuals, including Federal government employees, in preparing their estate plans, including wills, trusts, powers of attorney, health care directives, and other estate planning documents.  He is a seminar presenter for NITP, Inc.