Checklist: When Your Loved One Dies.
1. Make Final Arrangements
The most immediate task when someone dies is to make the final arrangements. Many people contact a funeral home for help with arrangements. If the decedent was religious, call the pastor, priest, rabbi or other religious leader for guidance.
You will need to notify others of the death, including family, friends and anyone who depended on decedent, such as an employer, a business owned by decedent or volunteer organizations. Family members or close friends can divide up the list of people and make the calls.
It is also customary to put together an obituary to run in the local paper. You can ask friends and relatives for information to include. Funeral directors, again, are often very helpful with this task.
You may want to ask someone who doesn’t mind missing the funeral to stay at the house as a security measure while the funeral service is taking place. Unfortunately, burglars often choose to target homes they know will be empty from reading the obituaries.
2. Manage Decedent’s Affairs
Search the decedent’s apartment or house to identify and secure assets. Take measures to protect jewelry, automobiles, and other tangible personal property. Make arrangements for protection of real estate, possibly by finding a house sitter, if necessary.
Make sure decedent’s plants and pets are taken care of, and if necessary find them a new home.
Take care of other perishable property, for example, in decedent’s refrigerator.
Make sure any business owned by decedent is either temporarily closed or being managed by someone capable.
Call the post office and arrange to have all mail forwarded to you as personal representative.
Cancel credit cards.
Cancel videotape rental, library, memberships and other courtesy cards.
Call phone and utility companies, to alter or discontinue service, as necessary.
Call cable company, newspapers and magazines, to stop subscriptions.
Contact decedent’s financial advisers — accountants, attorneys, real estate agents, insurance agents –to find out if decedent was in the middle of any transactions or if any matters need to be taken care of immediately.
Contact decedent’s employer (and possibly former employers) for benefit information, unpaid wages, accrued vacation pay that may be owed to decedent.
Contact the Veterans Administration, MediCal, decedent’s pension plan, the Social Security Administration and any other government agencies or benefit program that may be making payments to the decedent so that future payments will be stopped.
Terminate decedent’s lease for residential property if required or if permitted and advantageous.
Contact life insurance companies.
3. Legal Steps
Search for a will and/or trust. The originals may be in a safe deposit box, in the attorney’s office, or in a file at home or at the decedent’s place of business. Any person whose name is also in the bank’s records relating to a safe deposit box may enter it at any time. If there is not another person entitled to access a safe deposit box, there are procedures that may allow you to look at the contents of the box in the presence of a bank employee.
Order several copies of the death certificate. These will be needed in connection with the estate administration. The funeral director may be able to get them, or you can get them from the health department in the county where decedent died.
Find the executor named in the will, and/or the successor trustee named in the trust. If decedent had no will or trust the family should decide on one person who will do the job of estate administration.
Transfer decedent’s property to the new owners. If decedent had a will or trust, this is the job of the executor or trustee. If not, this is the job of the administrator. This transfer can be done without an attorney, but it is usually a good idea to contact an attorney, at least for a consultation.
Some estates are simple enough that the executor can handle the administration with minimal or no attorney involvement. However, it is always better to talk to an attorney to find out whether the estate you are handling is one of those. Below are some issues to look for:
If decedent had a revocable living trust and left a surviving spouse, the trust may have to be split into two or more subtrusts. It is very important to allocate the assets correctly. You should contact an attorney to advise you about this so that taxes are minimized. It is much easier and cheaper to do this within a few months of death.
Estate administration in a blended family (i.e., with step children and/or second spouse) can be very complicated, and the potential for disharmony (litigation) among heirs is high. It is best to get legal advice before you accidentally create a problem.
If taxes are to be minimized or other objectives accomplished by a disclaimer, the disclaimer must be done correctly and within 9 months of death.
If the estate is large enough that estate taxes might be owed, you will want help preparing the estate tax return.
If decedent’s trust is a continuing trust, rather than one that terminates on death, you should get an attorney’s advice about what your duties and powers as trustee will be.
4. Determine if Probate is Necessary
Probate, the process by which a court transfers decedent’s property to the heirs, is necessary unless:
Property is in a trust.
Property passes by a death beneficiary designation; the most common examples are life insurance and retirement assets.
Property was owned as joint tenants with another person, which gives that person a right of survivorship.
Property can be transferred through the DMV: cars, boats, and mobile homes.
Community property passing to surviving spouse.
In some cases, property can be transferred using a simplified probate procedure: when decedent’s total probate estate is smaller than $150,000 and includes no real estate worth more than $50,000.
When property is going to a surviving spouse.
In most other cases a full probate will be required.