Loved One Dies: Eight Important Steps
A parent, your spouse, or a close
friend or relative has passed away. If you have any responsibility
for the decedentís affairs, one of the first questions that will
enter your mind is, "What do I do now?"
Few individuals can answer that
question, especially during a time of mourning. The eight steps that
follow may help you sort through the confusing procedures involving
funeral, probate, taxes, insurance and other vital matters.
These general suggestions are not
intended to cover every eventuality; rather, they are meant to help
you identify important issues that surviving family members and
friends often encounter.
Some of the steps are more complicated
than most individuals are willing or able to undertake, and an
experienced probate attorney can efficiently assume the various
responsibilities which arise out of a personís death.
With very few exceptions, none of the
steps outlined below requires immediate action. Tend first to your
emotional needs, and then, when you are ready, you can start putting
the decedentís affairs in order. (See related article, "What
Are the Duties of a Personal Representative?")
1. Contact the funeral director.
An experienced funeral
director can provide a variety of helpful services beyond the
obvious ones, including making transportation arrangements,
coordinating with other funeral directors (if, for example, the
burial is to be in another city or state), notifying government
agencies, preparing obituary notices, etc.
2. Inspect the decedentís safe deposit
allows a joint owner of a safe deposit box, a surviving spouse, or
the named personal representative of the decedent to open the
decedentís safe deposit box.
In estates where there is a
possibility of disputes among family members, it would be wise to
have either bank personnel or a disinterested third party present
when the box is opened. A written inventory should be prepared at
that time to document the contents of the box.
3. Gather all important documents.
financial and other records must be gathered for the purposes of
probating the estate and preparing the decedentís and the estateís
income tax returns.
In searching for these and other
important documents, check safe deposit boxes, desk drawers (both at
work and at home), briefcases, lockers, safes, etc. Also, keep a
careful eye on the decedentís mail. Never throw out official-looking
The following list includes most
documents and pieces of information that are commonly considered
Business records (if self-employed)
Check register (current year)
Life insurance policies and
Past employment information
Real property deeds
Retirement account statements
Tax preparer's or accountant's name
Tax return source documents (current
Tax returns (last three years)
4. Notify the decedentís attorney.
If the decedent had a
will or owned property outside of a trust or joint tenancy
arrangement, his or her estate will probably be subject to the legal
proceeding known as "probate." Through probate, claims against the
estate are settled, and the decedentís remaining property is
distributed in accordance with the instructions contained in his or
her will, all under the supervision of the probate court.
Though it is possible to handle a
probate without the assistance of an attorney, people who are not
familiar with the process will find it frustrating and very
difficult. Even when the estate does not utilize the services of an
attorney, you should at least contact the attorney who prepared the
decedentís will, if for no other reason than to review any documents
that the attorney may have in the decedentís file.
5. Contact Social Security.
If the decedent has paid into
Social Security and accumulated the minimum number of work credits,
survivor benefits can be paid to certain family members. These
include widows, widowers, children, dependent parents and, in some
cases, surviving divorced spouses.
If you were not receiving Social
Security benefits when the decedent passed away, you should apply
promptly. You can apply
online, by phone (800-772-1213) or at any
Social Security office.
If you were already receiving Social
Security benefits on your spouseís record when he or she died,
report the death to Social Security and they will change your
payments to survivor benefits.
If you are already receiving Social
Security benefits on your own record, youíll need to complete an
application to receive survivors benefits. A copy of your spouseís
death certificate will be required.
6. If the decedent was a veteran, contact the Veterans
Veteransí pension and disability payments
cease at death; amounts received after death must be returned to the
Veterans Administration (VA). However, the surviving spouse may be
eligible to receive a portion of those benefits. For additional
information, contact the VA
online or by
phone at the
Phoenix office (800-827-1000).
7. Contact insurance companies.
You will need to contact
each insurance company that insured the decedentís life or provided
endowment or annuity benefits to the decedent. Each company will
have its own requirements for payment of death benefits, although
all will require a certified copy of the death certificate. Some may
also require you to submit the original policy to them before they
will pay the death benefit, while others will instruct you to
destroy the policy after the death benefit is paid.
Finally, if the decedent was named as
the beneficiary of any policies that you own, you will need to
contact those companies and request a "change of beneficiary" form.
8. Additional companies to contact.
Contact all banks,
credit unions, brokerage companies or other companies where the
decedent had accounts, investments or any other financial interest.
Each will have certain requirements for collecting the funds owned
by the decedent.
In Arizona, if the decedent owned over $75,000 in gross
personal property or $100,000 in net real property at the time of his or her
death (per 2013 legislation), it may be necessary to file a probate in
order to collect amounts owned by the decedent. If there is any
question about the necessity of filing a probate, you should contact
If the decedent was receiving
retirement or pension benefits from a private company, you will need
to contact the company providing those benefits. If the decedent was
a union member, there may be death benefits available through the
If the decedent was a beneficiary of a
trust or an heir of an estate, you should notify the trustee or
personal representative, respectively, of the death.
The State of Arizona has a widowís and
widowerís tax exemption for real property. Your attorney can explain
how that might apply to your situation.
If the decedent was named in your will
as an heir or as your personal representative, your will should be
Deeds, titles, etc., may need to be
changed depending on whether ownership was as joint tenants, tenants
in common or community property.
Change of address forms may need to be
sent to creditors, utility companies, etc.
Federal and state estate taxes may be
due. Federal estate tax returns must be filed if the gross estate is
$5.25 million or more (for 2013); the same is true for Arizona estate
tax returns. If the decedent lived in or owned property in another
state, the laws of that state will also need to be considered.