There are usually many things needing done immediately after a loved one’s death. In our experience, families are best served by starting with the most personal elements of the passing, then take specific steps to help accomplish closure in family affairs and the finalizing of an estate. These steps we can suggest help avoid anything “slipping through the cracks” in process and allow families time needed to grieve, rather than being buried in paperwork and procedural red tape.
Step 1: Contact with family and friends. Provide a gathering place and time for family and friends. Whether there is a funeral, cremation or other formal event, it is critical for emotional closure that people gather to remember the departed, to grieve, laugh, sing, and or pray in honor of both the deceased and the living. If a babysitter is needed, make it happen. You may also need help with common activities like answering the phone or door, shopping, preparing meals or cleaning. It’s ok to ask for help. That can include arranging with family and friends to bring food and beverage for hospitality to a larger group. It may also be useful to have someone with you for a time, or you can even ask someone if you can stay at their home instead. In your time of need, family and friends will assist however they can.
Step 2: Make arrangements. Make your choice of funeral home, and work with the facility’s director. The funeral director will have a packet of information and guidance to simplify arrangements and preparation for the funeral. The funeral director works with you to set the time and place of a funeral ceremony, obtain a death certificate (you will need ten or more copies). He or she can also contact the Social Security Administration to claim benefits for you. Helping you in this time of need is the funeral director’s job, so just ask for anything you need.
The death certificate is a kind of state vital statistics record, and information needed about the deceased to complete it includes:
- Full legal name
- Birth date
- Mother’s legal name
- Father’s legal name
- Social Security number
- Veteran’s claim number or discharge number
- Marital status
Step 3: Compile information for an obituary. This detail can include age, place of birth, cause of death, occupation, college degrees, military service, memberships held, notable work or career details, and especially a list of survivors in the immediate family. Provide the time and location of funeral services. The funeral home normally writes the article and will provide it to appropriate newspapers (newspapers may accept a photo you provide and will return it intact). If you wish, you can also suggest where donations or gifts may be sent, such as a non-profit organization, hospice, library or school.
Step 4: Collect any necessary paperwork. These papers are needed before filing for benefits. You need to gather all the deceased’s relevant paperwork, including:
- Certified copies of the death certificate. A certified copy of this certificate is usually provided by the funeral home. This death certificate is required for closing accounts or settling other matters on the departed’s behalf. Insurance companies also need the death certificate before distributing according to their policy. The death certificate is needed to make claims on insurance policies and for social security benefits, for property transfer, and to manage any other type of financial affair.
- Birth certificates for dependent children
- Discharge papers from the military
- Marriage license or certificate, or proof of registration as domestic partner
- Copies of recent federal tax returns
It is important to contact any insurance company that issued a policy for the deceased and file for benefits. This may be a challenging time to think about money and budgeting, but getting this step done can often alleviate part of the financial stress of losing a loved one.
Do you know what your loved one’s wishes were? Such instructions might direct cremation versus burial, or provide other specific guidance for the where, when and how of funeral services and related logistics. You can ask family and friends for any insight they may have from conversations and experience with the departed.
Others need to be notified of the death also, such as any accounts receivable (who might have had debts or obligations to the deceased?), utilities and phone company, landlord, banks, creditors, and even the post office. Tell the post office so they will stop delivering mail, but still make arrangements for someone to receive particular mail such as bills and benefit payments. Collect any unpaid bills then contact them; there may be life insurance coverage available. Discuss all unpaid, unsettle bills with your financial advisor.
Make sure the funeral director prepares Social Security Form SSA 721. Confirm with the Social Security Administration that the deceased’s Social Security number is retired.
Step 5: Secure any and all property and assets. A crucial, immediate step is to secure all property and assets included in the deceased’s estate. Keep property safe from vandals and criminals by removing any valuables and locking everything up, including sheds, garages and vehicles, as well as valuables and property located offsite). This also helps prevent other family members from going through the deceased’s belongings prior to formal arrangements.
Step 6: Freeze all bank and other financial accounts – Inventory the deceased’s financial affairs immediately after his or her death. This is critical to stop any automatic debits. Place a freeze on all non-jointly owned bank, financial and credit card accounts. If there are any automatic deposits expected into a bank account prior to its official closure, it’s a good idea to stop them or make appropriate alternate arrangements to allow account closure.
Step 7: Find estate planning documents; Consult with a probate lawyer – The vast majority of the time, families need to consult with an attorney specializing in probate urgently after the passing of a loved one. The accurate and effective management of the deceased’s estate depends on the terms of the legal documents the deceased had in effect at the time of passing, and no two cases are identical; a probate lawyer knows how to navigate the situation and can answer your questions. An attorney assists filing with the probate court both if the departed had a will in place or had no last will or testament. If there was a trust established, then you might bypass the court process, but an attorney can still help ensure that the trust is administered efficiently and effectively (avoiding common mistakes people make in the process) and that all the estate’s expenses get paid.
Step 8: Ensure care for surviving pets – If the deceased left pets alone in the home, immediately place them with a family member, friend or a local shelter. Remember that animals have emotions too, so this is a traumatic experience for them every bit as much as for the humans around them. Contact the deceased’s lawyer; he or she may have provided legal plans (such as a pet trust) in order to provide for their non-human friends when this time came.
Step 9: Contact the Social Security Administration – Social Security needs to be notified after anyone’s death. Their number is 1-800-772-1213. They will stop benefits to the deceased, and you should also ask about survivor benefits which a spouse or children can claim.
Step 10: Begin claims for benefits – The deceased may have had a life insurance policy or entitlement to death benefits from an employer, civic organization or union. Contact each relevant organization as soon as possible after the deceased’s passing to initiate claims.
Step 11: Evaluate long-term care for a surviving spouse/registered domestic partner – If a surviving spouse/registered domestic partner is elderly or unable to live on his or her own, his or her long-term care must be an urgent consideration. Possible solutions range from he or she moving into another relative’s household through to arranging for in-home, round-the-clock assistance. If a nursing home seems appropriate, both the surviving spouse/registered domestic partner and estate may be best served by consulting with an Elder Law attorney about possible protections for the survivor and the estate before deciding on such an action.
T.S. Wrobel Law Group: We’re Here to Answer Your Questions on California Probate Rules and Procedures
For an initial consultation, contact T.S. Wrobel Law Group to speak with Thomas Wrobel for your probate needs. Call (415) 928-4161now for an initial consultation, or reach us by email at info@TSWrobel.law. We look forward to assisting you.