What to do When a Loved One Dies

When a loved one dies, business and legal matters likely will be the furthest thing from your mind, and rightly so.  Your first priority should be to take care of yourself and your family, and to make any necessary funeral arrangements.  In most cases, there's no reason to worry about business and legal matters before the memorial service.

After the funeral and an appropriate grieving period, you will need to attend to important administrative matters.  Here's a checklist to help you get started:

  1. Locate your loved one's Will or revocable living trust, and other important legal papers.  Places to look for estate planning documents include safe deposit boxes, safes or strong boxes, or filing cabinets.  In addition to a Will or revocable living trust, attempt to locate:
    • Life and other insurance policies
    • Bank records
    • Retirement plan and other employee benefit documents
    • Deeds and other real estate documents
    • Automobile registrations
    • Income tax returns, W-2 forms and other tax records
    • Notes receivable and payable
    • Marriage certificate
    • Birth certificates for all family members
  2. Contact a lawyer and make an appointment to meet with him or her regarding the administration of the estate.
  3.  If assets pass under a Will, the decedent's personal representative should consult an attorney about initiating probate proceedings.  If you are named as the personal representative, remember that you have no authority to act on behalf of the estate until a court accepts the Will as valid and appoints you to act in that capacity.  If your loved one died without a Will, consult an attorney about steps you should take to initiate court administration of the estate.
  4. If the decedent had a revocable living trust, the trustee can begin managing his or her affairs immediately, without the need for court proceedings.
  5. Conduct an inventory of your loved one's assets and liabilities, paying particular attention to assets that may require immediate attention, such as life insurance policies, stock options and retirement plans.  If probate is required, be sure your lawyer moves quickly so the court can address the disposition of stock options and other time-sensitive assets.  Do not pay any outstanding bills until you have inventoried all of the decedent's assets and debts and compiled a complete list of his or her creditors.
  6. Contact the decedent's employer or business associates to get information about
    • Group life, accidental death or disability insurance
    • Contributions to pension funds or other retirement plans
    • Accrued vacation and sick pay
    • Unpaid commissions
    • Health insurance covering you or other dependents
  7. If the decedent was a business owner, determine the obligations of the trustee or personal representative to continue the business's operations.  Consult an attorney to review any succession planning documents prepared by the business and arrange for a qualified appraisal if necessary.
  8. Contact the decedent's insurance agent to file a life insurance claim.  You will need to furnish the following to the life insurance company:
    • Death certificate
    • Insurance policy numbers and amounts
    • Decedent's full name, address, and date and place of birth
    • Decedent's occupation and last place of employment
    • Claimant's name, address, age and Social Security number
  9. Contact your local Social Security office to apply for spousal and dependent benefits.  You will need to furnish the following:
    • Certified copy of death certificate
    • Decedent's Social Security number, proof of age and marriage certificate
    • Decedent's employer information, approximate earnings in the year of death and earnings records for the previous year
    • Social Security numbers and proof of age for the deceased's spouse and dependents
  10. Keep in mind that this list is by no means exhaustive, but it gives you an idea of the financial and legal steps you will need to take when a family member dies.  Losing a loved one is extremely stressful, but you can ease some of the strain by organizing the documents you will need well in advance and consulting experienced advisors to guide you.


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