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January 14, 2020

The Death of a Loved One: What Do I Do Now?

Please read important disclosures HERE.

“What do I do now?” is often the first question asked when a parent, spouse, child, or a close friend or relative passes away. My best advice is when that time does come, close your eyes, breathe, and take the time you need for your memories. Stay in touch with your own feelings and well-being. Few people can think with total clarity on all fronts when a loved one dies and it is easy to become distracted and endanger yourself or others (falls or other accidents can occur).

Other than immediate tasks involving the body of the deceased and pending transactions such as a real estate closing or other financial emergency, most tasks related to someone’s death do not require immediate action. However, for some, focusing on putting a decedent’s affairs in order can provide an opportunity to think about other things and the work may provide emotional relief. For others, focusing on an estate administration can wait until one is emotionally ready to tackle the tasks.

The following information is a checklist of many of the tasks that need to be handled after a person passes away. Ultimately, what needs to be done and how long it will take to deal with each task depends on an individual’s situation. The information set forth below is not a substitute for sound professional advice.

1. Call 911, family members, and a funeral director

If there is an unexpected death at home, call 911. If the deceased was under hospice care, notify hospice.

Contact immediate family to comfort one another and share information about important decisions. You may encourage them to spread the word so you have more time to attend to other matters.

Look for any written instructions for funeral or memorial services and burial or cremation arrangements. Many people name a designated agent in an Advance Health Care Directive to take care of these arrangements.

Also, look for any records of the deceased person’s desire to donate organs. Two sources to check are the decedent’s driver’s license and their advance health care directive.

Contact a funeral director. An experienced funeral director can help with a variety of services beyond the obvious ones, including making transportation arrangements (if the death was in another city), cremation, notifying government agencies, obituaries, and ordering death certificates.

2. Secure property

Lock up the person’s home and vehicle and make sure their car is parked in a secure and legal area. If the home will be empty, you may wish to notify a neighbor or the police. If there are pets, arrange for someone to care for the animal until a permanent arrangement can be made.

3. Funeral or memorial services

Enlist help for the important decisions if needed. Arrange for someone to remain at the decedent’s home during the funeral service. Sadly, many people have come home to find that the deceased home has been robbed while everyone was attending the funeral.

Prepare an obituary and arrange for publication in appropriate newspapers or online. If the deceased left an ethical will or letters written to family members (not legal documents), share as appropriate.

Notify the post office and provide a forwarding address for mail so that accumulated mail does not draw attention. Mail may also be a source of useful information. Cancel newspaper subscriptions so papers do not stack up.

4. Ordering Death Certificates

The funeral director or hospice can assist with ordering death certificates. It is usually unclear how many certified death certificates will be needed but 10-12 will generally suffice. A copy of a certified death certificate can often be used to accomplish some tasks. If needed, you can always order additional certified copies from the county clerk’s office.

5. Collect and secure pertinent documents and inspect safe deposit box

Inspect the decedent’s safe deposit box for important documents and valuables. The rules regarding access to a decedent’s safe deposit box can be tricky and may vary from institution to institution. If there is a possibility of disputes among family members, it may be wise to have a bank personnel or disinterested third party present when the box is opened. A written inventory should be prepared at that time to document the contents of the box.

Important documents to locate:

A. Original will and any codicils.
B. Copies of bank account statements for month including date of death.
C. Copies of brokerage account statements for month including date of death.
D. Copies of any securities or stock options that are not included in the brokerage statements.
E. Copies of any promissory notes receivable and the balance due at date of death.
F. Copy of the deed to the residence and the deeds to any other real property owned.
G. Ownership certificates for any automobiles.
H. Copies of IRA and 401(k) account statements for month including date of death.
I. Life insurance policies on the decedent’s life or on the surviving spouse’s life.
J. List of any other assets of any type owned.

K. Copies of any trusts of which the decedent was a beneficiary.
L. List of payments made for household bills, etc. for the two months after death.
M. Mortgage statements for month including date of death.
N. Real property tax bill for the current tax year.
O. Names, addresses, and dates of birth of the decedent’s children.
P. Social security numbers for the surviving spouse and children.
Q. Location of any safe deposit box.
R. Copies of income tax returns for the last two years.

6. Consult a lawyer/even if you do not engage their services

If at all possible, contact the attorney who prepared the decedent’s will or trust to make certain that you have copies of any documents the attorney had in his or her files. Advice from a qualified professional can often save estate money, make the process of settling the estate easier, and help family members avoid potential liabilities. Even if matters appear straight forward, there are tasks that are required that may not be apparent.

For example, Probate Code Section 8200(a) requires that the person in possession of the will lodge the will with the clerk of the superior court in the county in which the decedent resided within 30 days of learning of the death (unless a petition for probate has already been filed). The will must be lodged even if there is not going to be a probate because the decedent had a fully funded trust.

If the decedent had a trust, a Notification By Trustee must be sent to heirs and beneficiaries notifying them of the death and their right to receive a copy of the trust.

You will also want to consider retaining the services of an accountant. There will be final income tax returns to prepare, post-death fiduciary income tax returns, and, depending on the size of the estate and personal circumstances, an estate tax return may also need to be prepared.

7. Notify government agencies and insurance companies

Typically the funeral director notifies Social Security that a person has died but it is always a good idea to double check. If benefits are being received, overpayments can be complicated. If a payment was received for the month of death, the payment may need to be returned. If the deceased has a surviving spouse or dependents, you will want to inquire about changes to benefits.

If Medicare benefits are involved, Social Security will inform Medicare.

Notify the health insurance company or the deceased’s employer to discontinue coverage.

Terminate other types of insurance if appropriate (automobile, umbrella policies) and obtain appropriate refund of premiums paid.

8. Apply for death benefits

It is not much but Social Security provides a surviving spouse a one-time $255 death benefit. Social Security can also put the deceased person on the Social Security Master Death Index to prevent fraudsters from collecting a dead person’s Social Security payments.

Determine the beneficiaries of retirement accounts and take time to understand the best methods to take distributions from these accounts. There are different income tax implications so a thoughtful analysis is important.

Locate any life insurance policies and complete the necessary forms. Each insurance company will have their own requirements for payment of death benefits.

9. Cancel accounts, memberships, and subscriptions

It may take some detective work but following someone’s death, cancel subscriptions, memberships, or other services that will no longer be used.

10. Pay recurring bills and terminate automatic payments

Pay regularly recurring bills such as car payments and utility bills. Terminate automatic payments as soon as possible and have paper bills mailed to an appropriate address. As a person’s house is closed down, utilities can be cancelled.

11. Deal with digital assets

Locate the decedent’s passwords and digital data on computers, tablets, and smart phones and deal with each as appropriate. Digital data will include photos, videos, music, emails, and social media accounts.

Please feel free to contact your B|O|S team for further assistance in helping you with your loved one’s estate administration.


This memorandum provides a general overview of a particular estate planning topic and is not intended to be an exhaustive summary of every practical element of that topic. Many important elements of each subject are not discussed herein. This memorandum is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be used as a general guide to estate planning or as a source of any specific recommendations, and it makes no implied or express recommendations concerning the manner in which any individual’s account should or would be handled, as appropriate estate planning strategies depend upon the individual’s specific objectives and circumstances. It is the responsibility of any person or persons in possession of this material to inform himself or herself of and to seek appropriate advice regarding any investment, financial planning, or estate planning decisions, legal requirements, and taxation regulations which might be relevant to the topic of this white paper or the subscription, purchase, holding, exchange, redemption, or disposal of any investments.

Estate planning law changes frequently and the information presented within may no longer be current. Please do not rely on the information provided herein without first consulting an attorney.

This memorandum does not constitute a solicitation in any jurisdiction in which such a solicitation is unlawful or to any person to whom it is unlawful. Moreover, this memorandum neither constitutes an offer to enter into an investment agreement with the recipient nor an invitation to respond by making an offer to enter into an investment agreement.

Opinions expressed are current opinions as of January 2018 and are subject to change. No part of this material may, without the prior written consent of Bingham, Osborn & Scarborough, LLC, be (i) copied, photocopied, or duplicated in any form, by any means, or (ii) distributed to any person that is not an employee, officer, director, or authorized agent of the recipient.

Filed under: Estate Planning

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