By: Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
October 8, 2017
What to do After a Loved One’s Death – Checklist
Following the passing of a loved one, you will understandably be overwhelmed with many emotions. Simultaneously, while trying to process the loss, you may be thrusted into a variety of financial, legal and administrative roles, which only makes that process harder for you. Clients call us regularly asking for a list of things to do and a rough idea of the order in which to do them. Below, please find a non-exhaustive checklist for your reference. Please note that the order can and often may change under the circumstances. Likewise, some of the items below may even have to occur simultaneously.
I. Immediately Following Death
1. Go to the deceased’s home. Look for all pertinent legal documents, financial documents and the like (the relevance will be discussed more below). Your biggest priority at this point is to address organ donation and final disposition. Be sure to secure the home.
2. Identify if the deceased wanted to be an organ donor. This is usually found on his or her driver’s license and Advanced Care Directives, particularly the Living Will and the Health Care Surrogate. Sometimes it’s called the Health Care Proxy or Health Care Power of Attorney.
3. Focus on final disposition; i.e. burial, cremation or entombment. Find out if the deceased had pre-arrangements or if you have to scramble to do that quickly. Unfortunately, most people do not have pre-arrangements, which puts additional and unnecessary pressure on the family during this time. In this regard, financing the final disposition can be done in a few ways (pre-paid, using a trust, beneficiary’s advancing money, or borrowing from a loved one or friend). Importantly, if there is any money in the estate, the entity that pays for final disposition is repaid first even before other creditors. Request about 5-10 copies of the death certificate from the funeral parlor or other relevant institution.
Also, be mindful of religious considerations, which typically complicates this process.
4. Notify family and friends of funeral arrangements and other events that bring family and friends together to celebrate the life of the departed, such as, shiva.
5. Prepare an obituary.
II. Meet with an Estate Attorney.
It’s important to meet with an estate attorney promptly after the deceased’s passing. He or she will explain what needs to happen next. Understanding the road map ahead will give you some peace of mind. However, the estate attorney cannot provide adequate legal advice about how things will play out until the discovery process below is substantially completed. On one hand, if probate is avoided through careful estate and business planning, then much of the remaining work is administrative in nature. On the other hand, if probate cannot be avoided, then it’s important to understand — as we call it — the ABCs of probate. Click here to learn more about probate. That stands for assets, beneficiaries and creditors. In this regard, it’s critical to know what the deceased owned, and particularly how it was titled. Then you can identify the designated beneficiary or beneficiaries who will inherit the assets only AFTER resolving all of the deceased’s creditors’ substantiated claims. Some issues you will cover during your meeting with the attorney include:
- Whether a probate proceeding is required.
- Explain the road map for how the trust(s) will be administered.
- Whether any beneficiary would want to disclaim their inheritance.
- How to account for expenses incurred after death.
- Will an appraisal of any of the assets be necessary.
- Is an estate tax or inheritance tax due.
- How and when to distribute personal property to beneficiaries.
- How and when to distribute other assets to the beneficiaries.
- If the deceased owned a business, how will the governing documents affect its operation and/or sale thereafter?
III. Meet with the Deceased’s Financial Advisor.
It’s important to promptly meet with the deceased’s financial advisor for at least three reasons:
1. Identify the deceased’s investment holdings and how they are owned. i.e., are they owned in his or her name, a trust, jointly held, a company, etc.
2. File any life insurance claims on all policies of life insurance with the deceased as the insured.
3. To the extent possible, discuss the beneficiary’s options with respect to accounts that do not require going through court proceedings and are not otherwise managed by a trust or other instrument.
IV. Document Gathering and Discovery Process – After Funeral, Cremation or Other Disposition
At this level, typically the personal representative is the person who is responsible for these items.
1. Continue to track deposits and expenses incurred due to the death and thereafter. It will be needed later.
2. Locate all original estate planning documents. This should include a last will and testament, living / revocable trust, irrevocable trusts, prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, powers of attorney health care surrogates, living wills (note the latter three are on longer valid but helpful to review fiduciary appointments). Only sometimes do estate planning attorneys retain the originals of these documents. The originals are required. Please note that, pursuant to Florida law, the last will and testament must be produced and filed with the court within ten days following death. If you cannot find it, it may be in a safe deposit box (see #4) so be sure to look there too.
3. Identify and locate all of the deceased’s assets and liabilities. This is most easiest obtained by going through the mail and examining bank and brokerage statements. The personal representative (PR) will ultimately have consulted with the deceased’s accountant, certified public accountant (CPA), estate attorney, banker, and financial advisor. Assets and liabilities may include the following:
- Real Estate – Look for deeds conveying title
- Bank Statements
- Retirement Account Statements -IRAs, 401(k)s, Pension Plans, etc.
- Investment Statements
- Life Insurance Contracts
- Annuity Contracts
- Car Titles
- Business Interests – corporations, limited liability companies (LLCs), limited partnerships (LPs), real estate investment trusts (REITs)
- Credit Card Statements – not to worry if you cannot readily confirm the existence of credit cards, as they will positively emerge demanding payment.
- Car Loans
- Balance sheet
- Income statement
4. Understand the deceased’s business holdings. If the deceased had business interests, it is important to contact the partners and obtain all material documents for the entities. This would include governing documents, such as operating agreements, bylaws and shareholder’s agreements. It would also include buy-sell agreements, assignments, meeting minutes, stock certificates, etc.
V. Call the Deceased’s Bank and Banker
1. Locate the safe deposit box if one exists. As mentioned earlier, it may contain important legal documents as well as valuable assets. Typically, if owned in the deceased’s name alone, then a bank will only let you in it with a court order so you may have to proceed intestate (as if the deceased died without a will) to get started.
2. Notify the bank of the death. While you’re at the banks, let them know of the passing so they can remove his or her name from all jointly held accounts. For non-jointly held accounts owned in the deceased’s name alone, this will result in the bank freezing assets until the the personal representative produces the appropriate court orders directing the bank to take certain action.
VI. Notify Other Miscellaneous Entities of Death as Well
1. Notify relevant federal government agencies of the death. They usually consist of the Social Security Administration, Veteran’s Affairs, etc. This is typically for one of two reasons:
First, benefits may terminate on death. Any funds received thereafter will have to be returned. It’s an unnecessary headache.
Second, benefits may be inherited by the surviving spouse or other beneficiaries by operation of a beneficiary designation, in which case you want to ensure that is processed timely. If not done timely, the state of Florida will receive the funds until claimed.
2. Notify the deceased’s employer (if still employed at time of death) to inquire about employment benefits. This is especially true if the deceased was an owner of the business and there is a buy-sell provision.
3. Notify the health insurance provider to stop coverage (if applicable). Often times you may be entitled to a refund.
4. Notify the United States Postal Service (USPS) and have mail forwarded to a family member managing the deceased’s affairs. Typically, this person is also the appointed personal representative. For this reason, he or she may need proof of such appointment from the court because you will be able to manage the deceased’s mail.
5. Notify the Florida department of motor vehicles in order to cancel the deceased’s driver’s license. Similar to the above credit bureaus, this may help to prevent post-death identity theft.
6. Notify magazine subscriptions, cable television and internet services to the extent applicable.
7. Notify organizations in which the deceased was a member in order to cancel membership and prevent them from becoming a creditor later.
VII. Cancel credit Cards and Notify Credit Card Companies and Credit Bureaus of the Death.
1. Notify credit cards. You should send a death certificate to each credit card company that you find. Importantly, the personal representative has a fiduciary duty to perform a diligent search of all creditors. All reasonably ascertainable creditors are entitled to actual notice of a probate (also called estate administration) so it’s important this occurs.
2. Notify credit bureaus. This may also help to minimize the risk of post-death identity theft, which, believe it or not, occurs more frequently than you’d realize. The three major credit bureaus are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
VIII. Meet with a Certified Public Accountant (CPA).
It’s important to meet with a CPA in order to determine if it’s necessary to file a final income tax return for the deceased. If the estate is opened long enough, it may even become necessary to file income tax returns for the estate.
Similarly, if there are trusts involved, it will likely become necessary for the trust to file income tax returns as well.
Lastly, if an estate tax return form 706 is necessary, the CPA or the estate attorney will likely prepare it.
IX. Special Accommodations.
It’s important to terminate or “freeze” social media accounts and other online accounts. Some websites permit a “memorialization” feature once they receive formal notice of death of a user. Similarly, you may want to consider terminating the deceased’s email, but be careful not to delete any accounts for which you still need access for information or to authenticate other accounts.
Barry E. Haimo, Esq.
Strategic Planning With Purpose
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