Estate Administration

Estate Administration: My Loved One Has Died. What Next?

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My Loved One Has Died – What Do I Need to Do? An Estate Administration Checklist provides peace of mind.

There are several practical and legal estate administration considerations that a person named as the personal representative or executor of an estate or successor trustee of a trust should address in the initial weeks following the death, but prior to the administration of the estate or trust.  During this stressful and emotional period, you may forget about tasks which may lead to problems if left undone, and there are important legal considerations to remember. Here is a list of some important initial steps to take:

Checklist of Initial Estate Administration Responsibilities

  • Make burial arrangements. If some time is likely to pass before burial, for example, if there will be a delay prior to a special ceremony and burial in a veteran’s cemetery, you should make arrangements with a funeral home to store the deceased loved one’s remains until the service.
  • Obtain ten original certified death certificates. After someone passes away, their death should be registered with the local or state vital records office, which can then issue official death certificates. A state-licensed funeral director or coroner typically prepares and files the death certificate with the state. A death certificate is often required to claim life insurance benefits, close bank accounts, transfer titles, and take care of other matters connected to the estate.
  • Ascertain the immediate needs of beneficiaries and expenses that must soon be paid. You should determine which of the decedent’s accounts contains cash that can be accessed for the beneficiaries’ needs and other expenses. It is critical to avoid interruptions in certain utilities or a repossession of an item due to a missed payment.
  • Arrange care for animals. If the decedent had pets or other animals, care should immediately be arranged for them. The will or trust may name the person your client’s family member has chosen to care for them, but if there was no will or trust, someone may need to arrange for someone to look after the animals until a caretaker can be determined. This is an often-overlooked area of estate administration.
  • Inspect the loved one’s home to make sure it is secure. If the decedent owned a home, you should walk around the home to make sure any points of entry are locked and that there are no maintenance issues that need to be addressed. The police department may be notified that the home will be vacant so police can patrol the area more frequently.
  • Change the locks. It is important for an authorized person to change the locks on the home to ensure that neighbors, service providers (maids, dog walkers, etc.), and even family members who had keys are no longer able to enter the home.  This is important to ensure that no one prematurely removes any property from the home, even if they are well-intentioned.
  • Remove valuables from the home and store them in a secure place. Jewelry, cash, works of art, furs, and other especially valuable property should be kept in a safe place until the estate or trust is administered and the items are transferred to the proper beneficiary. Check on the insurance coverage for these items.
  • Secure vehicles. Any cars the decedent owned should be locked. No one should drive the car, and the odometer should be checked to determine the mileage at the time the decedent passed away. If the car is parked on the street or in a driveway, care should be taken to ensure the car is not towed if left for an extended period. Insurance on the car should be maintained.
  • Arrange for the home and yard to be maintained. Continue lawn care and general home maintenance to ensure that the house does not become an eyesore and a target for thieves.
  • Discontinue services that are no longer needed, and hire any new personnel required by a beneficiary or dependent. If the decedent had domestic help, security guards, or assistants that are no longer needed, stop the services after checking any contracts or written agreements. If a beneficiary or dependent now needs the help of an assistant or maid, the necessary workers should be hired to ensure they receive the proper care.
  • Leave the heat or air conditioning on. To prevent any problems that may arise as a result of very high or very low temperatures, it is important to continue to heat and cool the home. In addition, if the home is vacant during cold winter months, steps should be taken to avoid pipes freezing.
  • If required, alert local officials of the vacant home. In some areas, a higher tax rate is applied to vacant homes, so in those places it is important to notify the city if the home is vacant and part of an administration.
  • Contact agencies to cancel benefits. If the decedent was receiving Social Security, veterans, or other benefits, the relevant agency should be notified of the death. No one should cash any benefits checks that arrive after death, and if any benefits are received covering a period after death, they should be returned.  Depending on the timing of the death, the government agency may automatically withdraw the last electronic payment.
  • Cancel subscriptions and monthly service agreements. If the decedent was receiving a newspaper, magazine, or other subscription, cancel them, and if applicable, request a refund.
  • Cancel credit cards and charge accounts. You should notify all of the deceased person’s credit card companies of the death and close the accounts as soon as possible. It is also important to notify all three major credit bureaus of the death to avoid identity theft.
  • Locate insurance policies. You should find all of the decedent’s insurance policies. The homeowner’s insurance company should be contacted to confirm that there is coverage for fire, flood, and/or other needed items as part of the policy. In addition, you should locate the decedent’s life insurance policies, which may have been issued by alumni associations, travel clubs, credit card companies, trade associations, etc.
  • Gather personal records. You should locate all bank statements, checkbooks, canceled checks, and at least the past three years of income tax returns.
  • Determine if anyone owed money to the decedent. While gathering the needed personal records, check to see if there are any documents reflecting debts owed to the decedent. Anyone owing such amounts should be contacted to ensure proper payment arrangements.

Legal Considerations to Keep in Mind

  • After the decedent passed away, powers of attorney are no longer valid. Therefore, for example, if a family member was in charge of paying the deceased person’s bills as an agent under a financial power of attorney, that person should stop paying those bills after the decedent has died. The personal representative/executor of the will or successor trustee of the trust is now the proper person to handle those matters.
  • If the decedent made arrangements for a funeral in advance utilizing a document such as a Remembrance and Services Memorandum, the decedent’s written instructions may be legally binding under state law, and the survivors may be obligated to comply with them. It is possible that the decedent pre-purchased their funeral arrangements through a local funeral home.
  • If any of decedent’s property or money was not part of his or her trust at the time of death or was not made a part of the trust at the time of death automatically, that money or property may be required to go through the probate process. That is, the money or property cannot be distributed to anyone, including the trust, without involvement by the probate court.
  • If there is any possibility that someone may want to disclaim, i.e., refuse to accept, any money or property they will inherit, it is important not to take any action that would be considered an acceptance of the inheritance.
  • Family members should not prematurely distribute any of the decedent’s property or funds. The personal representative/executor of the will or successor trustee of a trust are the only individuals allowed to distribute the deceased individual’s money or property and must pay all debts and taxes before transferring any funds or property to the beneficiaries.

Call Us with Questions!

Although you may be able to handle many of these initial concerns, estate administration can be quite complex. Even small mistakes could have significant consequences. It is important to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to help with probate or trust settlement and/or administration, as well as any other legal matters that may arise during this difficult and emotional time. Our goal is to provide peace of mind by guiding you through the administration and settlement of the decedent’s trust or estate. Please call to schedule a consultation: (435) 628-7004.  

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