Final Matters -- The Next Legal Steps To Take When Your Loved One Passes

Posted on: 3 June 2016

When a loved one passes away, families usually find that there are a number of legal and financial matters that still need to be handled after the fact. However, most people don't know what those next steps are nor who can help with them. If you're in the position of having to handle a family member or friend's final affairs, here's a handy guide to post-death notifications.

Get Copies of the Death Certificate. Generally, you will need multiple certified copies of the death certificate. This often translates to one copy for each major asset that needs to be transferred -- such as a house, car or bank account -- and you may need more for things like life insurance policies and annuities. 

Look for Documents. If you hadn't discussed with the deceased whether or not they had a will or trust, you may need to search for relevant documents (or contact your county court to see if a will was filed). In addition to a will or trust documents, look for information about the following:

  • Life insurance
  • Retirement accounts
  • Property deeds
  • Vehicle titles
  • Memberships
  • Accidental life or funeral insurance
  • Health insurance
  • Credit card insurance
  • Income tax returns
  • Legal papers such as birth certificates and Social Security cards

Contact a Probate Lawyer. If there was no will (and sometimes even if there was), the estate will likely need to go through the probate process in the courts. This process -- which varies by state -- determines who gets what assets and in what order. It also allows the court to name a person to execute the affairs of the deceased. Probate can be a long and arduous task, so it's often wise to work with an experienced lawyer as soon as you can. 

Pay Unpaid Bills. Whomever has been designated as the Personal Representative should collect all unpaid bills to determine which need to be paid from the deceased's estate. If there is no joint owner for the person's bank accounts, the Personal Representative may need to be formally approved by the court before access to the accounts can be given. Be sure that the bills are in the decedent's name and legitimate before paying them with the estate funds. Any bills that are only in the person's name and for which there is insufficient money to pay from the estate are generally not required to be paid by the surviving family. 

Notify Agencies. Once you've collected relevant documents or the will, it's time to notify interested parties about the passing of your loved one. While notifying many of these companies, check to see if they have any benefits due to the deceased person or beneficiaries. Such agencies and business include:

  • Social Security Administration
  • Employers
  • Insurance companies
  • Credit bureaus
  • Debtors, including credit card companies
  • Banks and brokerage companies
  • Retirement accounts and employee benefits companies
  • Your state's estate recovery office
  • Your state's taxation department or Secretary of State (if the deceased owned a business)
  • Veterans Affairs

While it can be a time-consuming and emotionally painful task, wrapping up the financial and legal affairs of your loved one is important and can help many people. For more information, you may want to contact an experienced probate lawyer from a firm like Bayer Jerger & Underwood