The days, even weeks, that follow the death of a loved one can pass in a fog. It is often difficult to focus on anything but the grief you feel. People sometimes become preoccupied with any number of activities to take their mind off things. At some point, someone must step up and focus on the practical and legal steps that need to be taken as a result of the decedent’s death. At Clarity Legal Group® we advise and assist clients and their loved ones dealing with the days and weeks following a death. This blog is intended to be a guide as to some of the basic steps you should take to begin the administration of an estate after the loss of a loved one.
Steps to Take Immediately
- Notify the hospital/authorities of organ donation. If your loved one was an organ donor, it is crucial to notify someone immediately.
- Arrange for handling of the body. If you know what funeral home you want to handle the disposition of the body, notify them immediately. In North Carolina, if you are the Health Care Power of Attorney for the decedent, you may have been given express authorization and authority to direct the disposition of remains in the Health Care Power of Attorney document. The authorization may include instruction as to what actions to take. Review the document to look for authorization to act. If the decedent made his/her own funeral and burial plan, the terms of that plan must be followed. Look for a pre-paid funeral contract or for a funeral trust among the decedent’s estate planning documents. If a funeral trust was created, the person named as Trustee in that trust agreement will be authorized to take a role in completing the arrangements.
- Notify close family. Notify family and close friends of the death. If your loved one was a Clarity Legal Group® client they may have left a list of people to be contacted in their Estate Planning Portfolio, to be found among their belongings. Call the friends and family or, if you are unable to make all of these calls yourself, make sure you designate someone else to make the calls.
- Secure major assets. Make sure major assets, such as the decedent’s home and vehicle are secured.
Steps to Take within a Few Days
- Meet with the funeral home. Even if the decedent did preplan his/her funeral, it is still important to meet with them to make sure the arrangements are clear and everything is moving along as intended. Make sure you ask important questions such as clearly understanding the cost, the means and timing of payment, and who the funeral home will expect to participate in key decisions about the funeral. As noted above, it may be that one person, the Health Care Agent or Trustee of a Funeral Trust, will be authorized to make the important decisions.
- Obtain several certified death certificates. You (or whoever is the Executor of the estate) will need to show proof of the decedent’s death financial institutions and a variety of other third parties. In North Carolina, your funeral home will usually offer to obtain death certificates. We recommend that you get ten. If you need to get more, you can obtain a certified death certificate through the Department of Health and Human Services, Vital Records.
- Prepare an obituary. You may also wish to write an obituary and arrange for it to be published online or in a local newspaper. Most local papers now charge a significant fee for running an obituary. Check on this cost before committing.
- Close credit card accounts. Notify credit card companies of the death in order to protect against fraud. Do not pay any credit card bills at this time (unless the account is shared with another person). The accounts are to be paid as part of a more formal administration of the estate and the card companies (indeed all creditors) are to be paid, but only in due course.
- Do not close cash or investment accounts. It is premature at this stage to close any cash or other financial accounts. In an ideal situation, your loved one will have planned with a Revocable Living Trust and will have a Co-Trustee at the time of his or her death. This means that Trustee will already have access to financial accounts and thus the ability to use the accounts for expenses relating to the decedent. and investment funds, other accounts of the decedent’s death and ask to close the accounts.
- Identify all of the Financial Accounts. Do find documentation or other evidence of all financial accounts and determine how they were owned. Were any owned jointly with someone else, and if so, did the co-owner(s) have survivorship rights? Did any of the accounts have transfer on death or pay on death designations.
- Keep receipts. Regardless of the source of payment, it is important to begin the discipline of keeping receipts for anything spent in connection with the funeral or any other aspect of the administration of the estate. If there is not a Co-Trustee with access to an account, advise anyone who volunteers to pay for anything, to keep their receipts and ideally a copy of any checks or other evidence of payment.
- Stop benefits. Contact the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Administration, and any other government agency from which the decedent received benefits. Let them know that the benefits should cease. In North Carolina, funeral homes typically notify the Social Security Administration. Be aware that if the decedent was receiving social security benefit payments, the payment for the month of death will be reversed on a pro rata basis from the decedent’s bank account.
- Look for estate planning documents. Search for a Last Will and Testament, Trust Agreement, life insurance policies, and any other estate planning documents. If you do not already know where the decedent kept documents such as these, check a home office, ask close family members, or contact the decedent’s attorney. At Clarity Legal Group®, almost all of our clients have entrusted care of their original legal documents to us.
Steps to Take within Two Weeks
- Consult with a probate attorney. The probate process must be initiated in order to administer any assets which are controlled by the decedent’s Will, or to administer the estate if there was no Last Will and Testament. The probate may also be necessary to deal with any legal matters which arise in the administration process.
- Make a list of assets and debts. Not only will this help with the administration process, but there may be bills that you must continue paying, such as a mortgage payment.
- Cancel automatic payments and redirect mail. Contact the post office to handle the decedent’s mail. Cancel memberships. Review cash accounts for automatic payments and cancel all except those which are joint debts or obligations of a survivor and coming from a joint account with that survivor.
- Order a headstone. If this is applicable and you did not already do this, it can be done at this time.
- Shut down electronic accounts and social media. If you have access, or the decedent left a list of passwords, start shutting down online accounts. If you do not have the necessary information/access, you may need to wait until the probate process gets underway.
Contact a Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Chapel hill area Probate and Trust Administration Attorney
If you have additional questions or concerns about the legal steps you need to take following a loved one’s death, or if you need assistance probating an estate, please contact a the experience probate and trust administration attorneys of Clarity Legal Group® by calling us at 919-484-0012 or contact us online.