A Checklist Of What To Do When A Family Member Dies

By Simon J. Lebo, Esq.

A common question I hear from clients when they have lost a loved one is: "What do I need to do now?" This checklist is intended to help you understand the normal steps that must be undertaken when you have lost a relative or close friend in the majority of situations. Those who have been appointed by the decedent to see to their final affairs, or those who are the closest family members, will find this checklist the most useful.

1. If the funeral has not yet occurred, then you should look for any instructions left by the decedent as to funeral and burial arrangements, including prepaid funeral contracts. If the decedent was a veteran, special considerations may be given as to a military funeral or burial.

2. Notify family and friends. Do not hesitate to ask other close family members and friends to assist you in contacting those close to the decedent to save yourself some time and stress.

3. Coordinate the funeral arrangements with a funeral home. The funeral home will usually obtain the death certificates. Ordinarily, three to five original death certificates will be sufficient for most probates.

4. Contact the Social Security Administration and any other government agencies or benefit programs that may be making payments to the decedent. (The payment for the month of death may need to be refunded if already paid out).

5. Search for the decedent's wills and trusts. If the decedent left an original will, it must be filed with the probate court within 30 days of death.

6. Review the decedent's financial affairs and look for documents that may be of relevance, including:

  • Safe deposit agreements and keys
  • Pre- and antenuptial agreements
  • Life insurance policies
  • Trust documents
  • Pension-retirement benefits
  • Last two years of income tax returns
  • Prior gift tax returns
  • Marriage, birth and death certificates
  • Divorce documentation
  • Computer records regarding books of a business or personal assets
  • Bank statements, checkbooks and similar documents
  • Loan documents
  • Titles to motor vehicles
  • Leases
  • Securities and list of securities
  • Any documentation of business ownership or business interest (including buy-sell agreements)
  • Health insurance (make sure to submit claims for the final illness and any outstanding medical bills)
  • Unpaid bills
  • Deeds for any real estate owned by the decedent
  • Stock certificates, and brokerage account statements

In most cases, these documents will take time to gather and analyze, so do not expect to be able to pull together all of the above immediately after the passing of a loved one.

7. Assuming the decedent left a will, it must be submitted to the local probate court within 30 days of death. Typically, it must be accompanied by an original death certificate and the appropriate probate document depending on the type, value and ownership of assets left behind by the decedent.

8. Probate the will. A will generally names a personal representative (also known as executor or executrix). The personal representative will be responsible for the administration of the estate of the decedent. After a hearing on the admission of the will, the court will normally appoint the named personal representative. It usually takes about 30 days from the date of the submission of the will to the probate court for a personal representative to be appointed.

9. If there is no will and there are sufficient assets to probate (typically, at least $40,000 in Connecticut), then the court will appoint an administrator and the assets of the decedent will be distributed according to state law (commonly called intestacy). All states have a set of laws relating to intestate succession, and the state decides who receives the decedent's assets if someone dies without a will. Note that an account with a joint owner or named beneficiary bypasses both the will and intestacy, and passes directly to the joint owner or named beneficiary.

10. If you are the personal representative or trustee of a trust, make a list of the assets owned by the decedent or the trust so that these assets can be administered and distributed according to the wishes of the decedent.

11. After a personal representative is appointed, an estate account is opened with a new taxpayer identification number (equivalent to a Social Security number). This bank account should be opened as soon as possible, so that all receipts and disbursements can be properly tracked and accounted for, in order to account properly for the assets of the decedent and the expenses of administration. Oftentimes, the bank accounts of the decedent will be liquidated and used to open this estate account.

12. Most people view probate as the process by which the decedent's affairs (financial and legal) are brought to closure, including addressing outstanding liabilities and transferring assets in accordance with the decedent's written wishes. The personal representative will gather (marshal) all of the assets of the decedent and, after paying debts, expenses and taxes, distribute the assets according to the wishes of the decedent (if a will or trust was left behind, otherwise in accordance with the intestate law of the state). Typically this process includes filing an inventory, return of claims, death tax return and final accounting.

13. In some situations, it is appropriate to make a detailed listing of the household goods and personal belongings to properly account for and distribute the same, but in most situations these assets are distributed amongst the family members without issue.

14. Some assets may involve special tax considerations as it relates to their transfer, including insurance, annuities and retirement accounts [401(k), IRA, ROTH, 403(b)]. Most individuals find it beneficial to work with their trusted advisor(s) in dealing with these assets to explore the available payout options. In any case, copies of the policies and account information will be necessary and should be gathered as early as possible.

15. If there are annuities, pensions and profit-sharing plans, they may provide for survivor benefits. Each of these companies will need to be contacted to secure any benefits.

16. A final income tax return for the decedent, as well as an income tax return for the decedent's estate, will need to be filed. If there is a surviving spouse, a joint tax return for the year of death can be filed.

17. If there is real estate that is insured, the personal representative should make sure that the insurance policies on the properties of the decedent are maintained. Likewise for any vehicles owned by the decedent, insurance should be maintained in case of loss or claim.

18. The personal representative should generally wait to make distributions of assets until the final accounting is approved by the probate court, and the appeal period has passed. However, a family may file with the probate court a request for a family support allowance prior to the approval of the final accounting, should it be appropriate to do so in order to allow for distribution of assets.

This checklist is intended to provide useful guidance in the case of the death of loved one where probate is necessary, but it does not address every situation, including where the decedent left a living trust to be administered. If you would like assistance with your specific case or wish to speak to a lawyer, please contact Brown Paindiris & Scott, in Hartford, at 877-783-5367 toll free or online..

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