Six Things To Do After a Death

I get calls often right after the death of a spouse or a parent. It can be devastating, even if expected. And it's often overwhelming, too. There's no question about the fact that grief slows you down, and makes even easy things seem hard. No matter how well prepared a person may be, and no matter how well-drafted their estate plan is, it's just hard to lose a spouse or a parent. Period.

The first thing I tell people is that I'm sorry for their loss. The second thing I tell people is that they should take care of themselves and their families, first. Legal things can wait until after the memorial service--in fact, very little can be done before the death certificates arrive, and that takes a week to ten days.

Here's a list of a few basic things that a person can do in the first few weeks after death, while they're waiting for the death certificates, and before they're ready to come in and meet with an attorney.

Obtain Death Certificates

The family will need multiple certified copies of the death certificate, printed on fancy, archival, blue paper. I typically suggest ordering 5-10 depending on the number of accounts involved in the estate. The funeral home or cremation service will order these as well as notify Social Security. The survivor will need death certificates to change title on real property, to claim life insurance benefits, to inherit retirement assets and to transfer other trust or estate assets. Not every institution will need a certified copy, sometimes they will just make a copy and return the original. If you need to obtain more, you can order them from the County in which a person died.

Collect Important Documents

The last thing that anyone needs to be doing at a time like this is frantically searching for documents. In an ideal world, a couple would have kept their important documents organized and accessible. In this world, however, that's not always the case. I once had a bereaved spouse frantically call me because she couldn't find her marriage certificate, and was worried that she wouldn't be able to prove that she was legally married. (She found it.)

So, a surviving spouse or adult children might have to start collecting important documents, in preparation for opening up a probate or administering a trust. Here's a list of where to start:

  • All estate plan documents
  • Investment statements
  • Insurance records
  • Tax returns
  • Bank statements
  • Mortgage statements

It's also important to start going through the mail and collecting account statements for investment and retirement accounts, especially if the deceased spouse was the one who kept track of the finances. I once had a widow tearfully tell me that she was going to have to sell her lovely home and move somewhere smaller now that her spouse had died because he had left her virtually nothing. I asked her to collect all the mail that had piled up in the eight months since he died. She came into my office with several shoeboxes of unopened mail and we found close to $1 million in retirement accounts that she had known nothing about. She didn't have to sell the house.

Notify the Right Institutions and Pay Bills

The family should notify their spouse's past and current employers, as well as the federal government and any creditors. Here's a good list to start with:

  • Employers
  • Social Security Administration
  • Insurance companies
  • Creditors
  • U.S. Post Office

Outstanding bills for things like last medical expenses and credit cards should be paid. Keep good records as some of these expenses may be deductible on the decedent's income tax or the estate's fiduciary income tax return or estate tax return.

Apply for any Benefits due Survivors

There may be some investigative work to be done here. Families don't always know about life insurance policies that may be in force, or about pensions, annuities, or other benefits available to the surviving spouse. The good news here is that almost every institution a family calls has a special office that deals with death claims, all day long. So even if a family isn't sure about what to do, the companies generally are and they will send forms and instructions detailing exactly what they'll need to process a claim.

A surviving spouse should check with the Veterans Administration to see if there any death benefits available if their spouse was a veteran and check this link to see if their spouse may have had a military life insurance policy with an available death benefit (many of these are never claimed).

A surviving spouse should also check with Social Security to see whether or not their benefits will change now that their spouse has died, which is often the case.

Leave Bank Accounts Alone for Now

Many spouses or adult children have joint accounts with someone who has died. I advise my clients to leave that account alone immediately after a death and for a few months afterwards, as there are often refund checks that will arrive in the decedent's name, and this account will make it easier to cash those checks. Also, a person's last Social Security check is automatically withdrawn for the month in which the person died, so you need to leave that account open until that withdrawal takes place.

Contact Your Lawyer

When a family is ready to start dealing with an estate or trust, has copies of the decedent's estate documents and copies of the death certificates, that's a good time to come in and consult with an experienced estates and trust attorney. At that initial meeting, they should be able to find out what the next steps will need to be--depending on the size of the estate and the nature of the estate plan, there might need to be a probate opened or a trust administration to begin. In a simple estate, it might just be a matter of beneficiaries claiming their accounts or bank accounts transferring to the surviving joint owner. Estates vary nearly as much as people do, but there are always a few steps that need to be taken after there's been a death.

If you or anyone you know is dealing with the death of a spouse or a parent, feel free to get in touch with me or pass along this article.