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What Should I Do When a Loved One Dies?

The death of a loved one can be an emotionally tumultuous time. It can cause feelings of confusion, shock, and grief as you process the reality that they are no longer here. Many people also find it difficult to understand why this has happened or how to cope with their loss. During this confusing time, it is important to remember that there is no one right way to grieve, and it’s OK to feel a wide range of emotions.

Important Tasks to Do After Discovering Someone Has Died

There are many practical matters to address when someone dies. Unfortunately, these many tasks can feel overwhelming. Not only must you deal with informing relatives and friends of the death, but you may also have legal matters concerning the deceased’s estate to address.

If you are named as the executor in someone’s will or wish to handle probate matters, you have additional challenges to overcome. Your role in the probate of a loved one’s estate confers several tasks upon you, and we’ll detail some of these below.

Notify the Police If You Discover the Deceased

When someone has died at home, you may be the first person to discover this fact. Dial 9-1-1 to contact emergency services and tell them you believe you found a deceased person, and first responders will be dispatched to investigate. A coroner will also come to remove the body.

Notify the Deceased’s Relatives

Contact the deceased’s adult children, parents, and/or siblings, if any. If you are related to the deceased, these people will be your brothers and sisters, grandparents, or aunts and uncles. You can also ask these individuals to contact other relatives if you aren’t in an emotional place to deliver this news to everyone on your own.

Typically, people prefer to receive the news of a loved one’s death via phone call or in person, so avoid sending a text message or email unless an individual is unreachable.

Facilitate the Donation of Organs & Tissues

If the deceased is a registered organ donor, it’s important to honor their wishes and help facilitate the donation of tissues and body parts that can help save other lives.

Obtain a Death Certificate

Obtaining a death certificate is essential to beginning the probate process, so it’s important to ensure you can get one in a timely manner from a doctor or coroner.

Search for the Deceased’s Will

The deceased’s will is also essential to the probate process; it is also likely to have instructions for how the deceased wishes their body to be treated.

Contact a Funeral Home

Although the coroner will hold the deceased’s body for some time, you must contact a funeral home to make burial or cremation arrangements. Do so according to the instructions the deceased left in their will.

Notify Government Agencies That Make Payments to the Deceased

If your loved one received Social Security payments, a government pension, or payment of any kind from another government agency, it’s important to notify them of the death. This should stop future payments, avoiding confusion and liability for debt owed to the government.

Review the Deceased’s Estate Plan

In addition to the deceased’s will, it’s important to locate and review all other estate planning documents relevant to their financial affairs. This includes the financial provisions of the will as well as any trusts the deceased established.

You should also locate old tax returns, life insurance policies, pension-retirement benefits, documentation of business ownership or interest, bank statements, land deeds, and vehicle titles.

Probate Without a Will

If the deceased left behind no will or trust, then probate will proceed according to intestate succession. This means the deceased’s estate will be distributed according to state law, prioritizing certain living relatives over others.

Probate with a Will

When the deceased did have a will, probate is necessary when their assets are not all contained in a trust. The estate’s executor, as named in the will, is in charge of submitting the will to the probate court located in the county where the deceased last resided.

Administering the will is the duty of the estate’s personal representative, who is typically the executor named in the will. A personal representative may be an individual, although more than one person could be named by the court to administer the estate.

Notify Relatives of Probate Proceedings

Even if you have already notified relatives of the deceased of the death, you must inform all family members within a certain degree of kinship that the estate is in probate. This must occur whether or not the relatives are expected to receive an inheritance from the estate.

Create an Accounting of the Estate’s Assets

The estate’s personal representative must account for all estate assets and submit their accounting to the probate court. If you have already tracked down your loved one’s various financial records, you have accomplished much of this task. Remember that an experienced probate lawyer can help you identify the records you should include in this account.

Be sure to include the following:

  • Bank accounts
  • Investment portfolios
  • Real estate deeds
  • Vehicle titles

If real estate is owned in more than one state, then ancillary administrations may need to occur in each state property is owned.

Create an Inventory of Personal Belongings

The deceased’s belongings should also be identified and categorized. This can ensure that a proper division of their estate occurs later in the process, and property goes to its intended recipient.

Open a Bank Account for the Estate

To administer the decedent’s estate, it’s essential to open a bank account and document all receipts and disbursements in that same account. This must be done quickly after the probate has begun to ensure appropriate records are kept for accounting purposes.

Identify Insurance Policies or annuities

You should also search for any life insurance policies or annuities belonging to the decedent. Contact the appropriate insurer to inform them of the death and begin the claim process for death benefits.

Prepare a Final Tax Return

Filing the deceased's income taxes for their final year is of great importance, and any tax owed must be paid. If a surviving spouse exists, they may file a joint return with the deceased’s for that year.

Execute Buy-Sell Agreements, If Necessary

If the deceased owned a business wholly or partially, their death may trigger a buy-sell agreement of their interest established with co-owners or other business entities.

Identify Debts & Pay Creditors

When the deceased was indebted to others, it's crucial that all creditors are paid. If creditors timely claim unpaid debts after assets have been distributed, then the Personal Representative may find themselves liable for those debts.

Make Distributions According to the Will

After the decedent’s creditors and tax debt are satisfied, it’s important to distribute the estate’s remaining property according to the instructions provided in the will or pursuant to California law if there is no will. If any property is located after distribution occurs, then it must be distributed as such nonetheless.

Be Wary of Threats to the Estate

Unfortunately, a loved one’s death can generate unfounded claims to estate property. People may pose as anything from creditors of the deceased to long-lost relatives, and it’s the duty of the personal representative to investigate each of these claims and respond to any legal action initiated against the estate.

You may even wish to have someone remain at the deceased’s residence during their funeral service to prevent their home from being burglarized while everyone is away.

Contact a Lawyer for Help!

Above all, remember that you don’t have to handle the affairs of a loved one’s estate all on your own. You can have the legal support you need to complete probate and protect your liability through this important process.

At the Law Office of Mitchell A. Port, we understand that the death of a loved one can be an incredibly difficult and confusing experience. Rest assured that our goal is to help you with the legal details as much as possible so that you have the time and space you need to grieve your loss in peace.

For more information about how we can help, contact the Law Office of Mitchell A. Port online today.