The Pain of Losing a Loved One
When someone dies, you may have to deal with the shock of finding a loved one’s body or the reality of a financial mess left behind. Here I’ve tried to give you an overview of what to expect – from dealing with the practical realities of the death itself, through wrapping up a decedent’s affairs. It’s a good idea to call upon a lawyer to help with probate and estate administration.
Phase One: The Initial Shock
It may sound obvious, but in a moment of panic, things aren’t always clear. If your loved one dies at home, call 911 or the Coroner’s Office in the county where you live. The deceased’s body must be picked up eventually through the funeral home, or hospital if organs are to be donated. Decisions regarding burial or cremation may have to be made, and a search should be made of the decedent’s personal papers to determine wishes/instructions, if they are not known.
Often it’s good to be accompanied by another family member or trusted friend to make arrangements, because you may be in a state of shock or hopeless overwhelm. I’d recommend contacting three funeral homes or mortuaries to determine rates, particulars etc. The rates can vary wildly in the same geographic area, and these fees are often negotiable. While I’m not suggesting you hunt for bargains, I am suggested you not be gouged at a time when you are emotionally distraught. I have learned that New York State stipulates the price for a cremation – so there may be similar regulations in other states. In some jurisdictions public assistance may be available for funeral arrangements, or the decedent may have purchased a package from a religious society or similar group which provides benefits or actual services/burial plot. If the decedent is a veteran or in the military, or the child, spouse or dependent of a member of the military, there is likely a VA benefit available for burial/funeral arrangements upon request.
Guard Decedent’s Property/Communications
When a death is announced in an obituary column, you’re putting the world on notice that a person has died and it’s important to guard against break-ins that may occur when the family is at the funeral. The decedent’s perishable property or property at risk must be specially protected. For example: Check the decedent’s house and make sure house is secured, especially during the funeral or while family is at wake!
- If you are unsure whether outsiders (cleaning folks, caretakers, etc.) have keys or alarm codes, change them so you can make sure you know who is authorized. They will contact you if they can’t get in. Contact neighbors if they may have information.
- If desired, publish an obituary.
Get Multiple Copies of Death Certificates
You will be asked by the coroner or funeral director how many death certificates you want. I’d recommend you request at least ten. They must be submitted for all sorts of claims such as insurance, pension benefits and estate administration. In some jurisdictions the cost is less if they are obtained at the outset from the funeral director or coroner’s office.
Phase Two: Organizing The Decedent’s Affairs
The second phase, which begins after the funeral, covers getting organized or “the lay of the land” as I call it. You want to get an understanding of the state of the decedent’s financial affairs so you get an idea of what has to be closed up. If you were a baker, you’d likely get the butter, sugar and flour in hand before you start to bake. That’s a good analogy for Phase 2.
Make A List
The goal here is to see where things stand when your loved one died. You want to get an understanding of what the decedent owned, outstanding debts and any outstanding funds that may be due to the decedent. Assets, debts, and accounts receivable. For example:
- Did the decedent own real estate, a car or vacation home?
- Are mortgage payments, taxes or utility bills due?
- Is there life insurance, pension or IRA benefits?
- Are credit cards automatically being debited by cable bills, EZ Pass, a gym membership?
A truly organized decedent has left a list of all important documents, locations, and they are easily retrievable by next of kin or trusted friends in a nice tidy folder that says “open when I die.” Since this is rare in reality, most likely it will be up to you to get the lay of the land. Following is a list of items you may want to address sooner rather than later:
- Look for a will which may be in the home, at the attorney’s office or on file in the county of residence.
- Forward the mail to a responsible person; read the mail that comes in so you’ll be able to expand the list of who to contact.
- Discontinue unneeded services related to decedent’s home.
- Formulate list of decedent’s advisors (accountant, attorney, broker, etc.) Contact them for help in putting together the picture of decedent’s affairs
- Stop credit cards.
- Contact major credit bureaus to report the death to protect against fraudulent post-death transactions. (Equifax (888) 766-0008, Experian (888) 397-3742, TransUnion (800) 680-7289 ).
Do not transfer title to assets or make any distributions of any kind to anyone without consulting an attorney!
Phase Three: Hire An Attorney
To launch estate administration, you need to appoint a personal representative, identify the estate assets and be prepared to deal with government agencies, such as the IRS, Veteran’s Administration and Social Security Administration to finalize accounts on behalf of the decedent.
Most jurisdictions have a simplified procedure for decedents who have small estates. If no last will and testament is found, generally a family member in closest relationship of lineage to the decedent is appointed to shepherd the intestate estate administration. If there is no will, state law will determine how the decedent’s assets are distributed. Depending on the nature and extent of the decedent’s assets, there may be issues as to “cash needs” during the period of administration and availability of assets that affected survivors need to live on.
These will be the initial concerns of the personal administrator. A big concern today is getting access to passwords and account names if the decedent handled a lot of personal affairs on line. It’s not always easy to figure out what is being automatically debited or deposited in a “paperless” world. When an executor or administrator has been duly appointed for the estate, a new checking account should be opened in the name of the estate. It will receive decedent’s assets, sell securities, pay debts and administration expenses, insure the family cash needs (e.g. for spouse and children if applicable) and eventually be used to pay beneficiaries.