Death of a Family Member: What to Do

Knowing what to do when a loved one dies can alleviate some of the uncertainty and anxiety that normally follows. Of course, funeral arrangements must be made quickly and family members must be notified.  One should order sufficient copies of the death certificate, as there may be a delay in obtaining additional copies later on.  Death certificates will be needed for each asset owned.  The funeral home usually notifies social security of the death of someone collecting benefits, so the family need only notify the provider(s) of any retirement pension which was being collected, as well as the health insurance carrier.  It is not necessary to call the credit card companies, medical providers, or other agencies.  Sending them a photocopy of the death certificate is usually sufficient and will save you time and energy, and it certainly does need not to be done immediately. A visit to the decedent’s safe deposit box, if any, should be accomplished quickly, so that important documents can easily be retrieved.

Assembling bank and brokerage statements for assets owned by the deceased is also important, so that a strategy for collecting them can be devised. If there are any joint bank or brokerage accounts, one might want to quickly withdraw some funds, sufficient to pay funeral expenses and bills which may come due in a short period of time.  Once a bank or other financial institution finds out about the death, they will freeze these accounts.

Surviving spouses should not begin to collect life insurance proceeds or the decedent’s IRA or other retirement funds, nor should the spouse begin to remove the decedent’s name from assets, until legal advice from an estate planning attorney has been obtained.  If a potential estate tax problem exists, a surviving spouse may want to timely “renounce” his or her interest in certain assets.  In order to do this, the spouse can not exert any control or take any actions with respect to the assets.

An attorney should also be consulted, although this need not be immediate, so that the process of probating the will, or of otherwise administering the decedent’s estate can begin.  The attorney will not only handle the probate and administration of the estate, but he/she can also provide valuable and necessary advice with respect to tax planning and the collection and management of assets.  The filing of estate tax returns and the payment of taxes owed must occur within nine (9) months.  

In short, there is much to do when faced with the death of a loved one. Knowing what to do at this difficult time can reduce stress and uncertainty and provide some comfort to the family.


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