Unoccupied living room as family begins estate settlement process

What To Do When Someone Dies - The 2020 Checklist

Ben Hopf

Losing a loved one can be incredibly difficult, both emotionally and logistically. The experience often comes suddenly and is certain to cause a flood of overwhelming emotions. While everyone processes grief differently, it’s fairly typical for most people to get confused or be uncertain around what “next steps” may be required legally.

Whether these tasks apply to you as a close friend or family, or you’re helping the named executor who is formally in charge of managing the estate, here is a checklist with all of the important things that will need to be considered after losing a loved one.

  

To Do Immediately After Someone Dies

1. Check in with immediate family and get support.

This can be a difficult first phone call or message, both to make or to receive. Every family is different and there is no right process for who should be called first except that sharing the news “sooner, rather than later” is generally best practice. Emotions and others response to the news may vary widely. Offer your support when able, but be sure to protect your own emotions and natural response as well.

2. Make immediate plans.

Depending on whether you loved one passed away in their own home, hospice, or in a hospital, different plans may need to be made in order to arrange proper care of the body. Check any driver’s license, living will, or advance directive to verify whether she or he was an organ donor. If so, quickly call the nearest hospital as certain organs must be collected within a limited time-period in order to ensure a successful donation. Arrange for the immediate care of any people or pets that your loved one was responsible for until further long-term arrangements can be made.

3. Notify close family, friends & work.

It’s typical to notify family first, starting with those family members who had the closest relationship. Afterwards, contact any known friends, co-workers or employers. Welcome any offers from others to help share the news with others who will want to know.

4. Honor end of life wishes (if known).

Many individuals express their wishes for end of life arrangements ahead of time with a last will & testament, advance directive, or other medical document. Other times, these wishes may have been communicated verbally to one’s significant other, children, or even healthcare staff such as their doctor, nurse or a death doula. If no wishes have been documented or otherwise communicated, discuss options with the closest family members in order to make a decision on what arrangements seem most appropriate. Be sure to take into account any religious preferences or cultural norms.

5. Select appropriate funeral, burial, or cremation provider to plan ceremony.

Identify and work with a funeral home, crematory or cemetery to plan for and facilitate any end of life celebrations or funeral ceremonies. Like most things these days, there are incredible resources online, like funeral marketplace Ever Loved, which can be an excellent starting place for guidance, support and inspiration. For those who prefer a personalized approach, it can be really helpful to work with an independent funeral consultant such as 805 Funerals. Either way, these resources can be tremendously helpful in understanding available options, saving time & money, and allowing the family to focus more energy towards honoring one's life and taking care of one another. These days, its also widely accepted to use online technology to better allow for digital participation or attendance of end of life celebrations for family or friends who live far away or otherwise have medical or age-related challenges with attending in-person.

6. Decide on a couple charities that honor your loved one’s legacy.

It’s very common these days for friends and family to express their condolences by purchasing flowers, making donations to a designated charity or sending other sympathy gifts in lieu of flowers. These decisions are generally included within the obituary, mentioned during any funeral ceremonies or shared online if using an online memorial service like LifeWeb360.

7. Publish obituary & notice to creditors

Draft an obituary with the help of family and friends or by using an online obituary writing tool. Keep in mind you’ll typically pay “for each line of text” of any obituary posted in local newspapers, so it’s a good idea to make those as short as possible. Longer obituaries can always be published online for free or distributed directly to friends and family if being used as keepsake honoring one’s life accomplishments and legacy.

8. If possible, locate or identify a will.

Individuals often update their last will & testament based upon impactful financial or family-based life changes, so be sure to review the dates and titling of any legal documents you find in order to ensure what you’ve found contains one’s most recent wishes. Interpreting these documents can often be challenging, especially following an emotionally traumatic loss, so consult an attorney or self-help platform as needed. If the documents appear to be drafted, or signed by a law firm, it’s a good idea to call their office to alert them of the passing and ask for any other documents your loved one may have on file.

Pro tip: if your loved one has ever lived or owned property in other states, you may discover multiple documents, from multiple attorneys, covering local laws from multiple states. This can feel very intimidating, but find comfort in knowing that each document is originally written for a particular reason and once everything is found and organized, these documents will make a lot more sense.

9. Notify any named parties within the will  & set initial expectations.

Now is not the time to stress over interpreting one’s will, though it’s helpful to at least initiate a conversation with anyone named in the document to at least let them know. Setting the right expectations is very important since this will likely be a first-time experience for you or any heirs/beneficiaries. For now, simply let them know who will be working with them (typically named “executor” or “personal representative” within documents) and ask for their patience as getting started with navigating the responsibilities to follow is typically a slower process than expected or portrayed in pop-culture. In these early conversations, it’s entirely okay to not have, or be able to provide, exact answers if pressed by family members. If no will can be found, intestacy laws will apply and next steps can be outlined by the local probate judge, or probate clerk, within the county of your loved one’s primary residence.

10. Pause and take some time to grieve, mourn, & self-care.

Grief has many stages (5 to be exact) and it’s easy to get distracted by “all of the things to get done.” So much that the sudden waves of changing emotions can quickly become overwhelming. Make sure you have a support group or healthy outlet for mourning and properly processing your feelings. Online resource centers such as Love Lives On not only provide incredibly helpful content, but can also help connect you with professional resources available in your area.

Self-care is vital step… both initially and over the weeks, months and years to follow.

 

Next Steps After A Funeral

11. Secure valuables, personal assets, & belongings.

It’s unfortunate, but knowledge that someone has passed away can be an invitation for theft, either from criminals, or even well-intentioned family members wanting to claim sentimental or financially valuable items. It’s good practice to change locks on the home and ensure all windows or doors can be properly closed or secured. Walk through the home to remove any perishable items from the kitchen, wash any clothes or bed linens, and clean any bathrooms if the home will be unoccupied for a while. Also check under mattresses or within coat pockets in the closet to find any cash that might be hidden and find a safe place to store any valuable’s like jewelry, car keys or family heirlooms. Depending on family relationships, it can be worthwhile to ask a trusted friend or family member to join you– not only as an extra set of helping hands, but also as a witness to your actions to help prevent any family disputes or accusations.

12. Helping hands from friendly neighbors.

Ask a neighbor or nearby friend to keep a watch over the home for evidence of any unusual activity or to help avoid any obvious signs that the home is unoccupied, such as the overflow of mail, amazon deliveries or newspapers piling up near the front door.

13. Identify and involve any named executors or personal representatives.

Get in touch with any individuals named within the will to be in charge of settling or administering the estate. This is commonly a surviving spouse, child, or trusted friend and could also involve multiple people serving together as co-executors. While being named as the executor or personal representative over one’s estate is a big honor and testament of a trusted relationship, it can also require a considerable amount of time and work. As such, being named does not create a requirement for that person to accept or serve, so conversations should be had with any named individuals to discuss the responsibilities involved and gauge one’s willingness (or ability) to act.  

14. Resources to help.

Being a personal representative, executor, or executrix (yep, the ladies get a super cool name) can become quite expensive depending upon the details of the estate, family relationships & local laws. Especially since it's a relatively unfamiliar process that individuals only go through once or twice during their lives (hopefully). In fact, families often spend a minimum average of $14,000 if hiring professional advisors. As such, it incredibly helpful to make use of instructional books or online articles before beginning the process. Better yet, many choose to make use of DIY platforms like Atticus which offer individualized step-by-step guidance, helpful tools, access to necessary forms and the ability to automatically generate shareable reports designed to decrease the amount of time, money and stress spent working through the process.

15. Determine if probate is necessary.

The probate process is not one-size-fits-all, but rather, may occur in different ways depending upon the location, type, titling and fair market value of assets left behind. While there are more in-depth guides available which outline and de-mystify probate, it’s important to get an initial assessment of whether probate will be necessary, and if so, whether the estate may qualify for an accelerated probate before obtaining “letters” in order to avoid costly or timely mistakes later in the process. Be sure to check the way certain assets are titled in order to assess whether they fall into probate or should pass directly to known beneficiaries.

16. Obtain letters & present will to the probate court (if there is one).

In order to authorize transactions or direct action by institutions, agents or advisors holding access to assets of the estate, you’ll need to either obtain “letters testamentary” or “letters of administration” by visiting that old courthouse downtown. While visiting the courthouse can be an unfamiliar (or downright anxious) experience for some, keep in mind that the actual clerks and judges that work there are sensitive to your situation and trained to help. That said, because the clerk staff are not attorneys, keep in mind that they’re unable to provide any individualized guidance which could be misunderstood as legal advice.

 

Taking Action

17. Notify the IRS and obtain a Tax ID number for the estate.

Once someone has passed away their individual social security number loses its effective purpose and value. As a result, a new tax ID number must be obtained from the IRS in order to authorize activities on behalf of the estate. This new number is commonly referred to as an E.I.N., which technically means “employer identification number,” though it can be more helpful to think of it as the “estate identification number.” Either way, this new estate E.I.N. can be applied for online, by FAX or mail, and will ultimately be used to close the estate when filing the final Form 1041 tax form.

18. Publish a notice to creditors.

The public posting of a notice to creditors is the formal process for informing any creditors of the estate of their opportunity to submit any unpaid bills or outstanding debt of the estate. Local laws determine the format and frequency of publishing these notices in order to ensure effectiveness. As such, it's helpful to use online tools to help automate the process. If this process is overlooked or skipped, it’s possible for creditors to surface months or even years afterwards with a legal right to demand payment t hereby forcing heirs to reopen the estate.

19. File a request to forward mail.

Filing a request with the local post office to arrange for forwarding of mail addressed to the deceased is generally pretty simple, although it will require proper documentation showing your legal capacity to act over the estate. This process can be tremendously helpful for surfacing any unpaid bills, active subscriptions or accounts that should be closed. Although it’s not required, many publishers of magazines or subscriptions will even issue a refund for any unused subscription services– so be sure to inform them of the situation.

 

20. Register for DMA "Do Not Contact" List

The Data & Marketing Association (DMA) maintains a Deceased Do Not Contact List (DDNC) for the sole purpose of requiring all DMA members to remove the names and addresses of deceased individuals from all marketing lists. There is no fee or cost to register online for the Deceased Do Not Contact List, and only takes about 2 minutes, so this is a really good way for family members, friends or executors to reduce the amount of marketing & advertising materials (a.k.a. "junk mail") being received by mail. The DDNC records are updated and distributed to members monthly, so don't be surprised if it takes 2 or 3 months to begin noticing the effect of receiving less mail. Either way, taking a moment to register for the Do Not Contact List is an important step in minimizing the risk of future identify theft or fraud abuse. For any materials which continue to arrive, you can notify these companies by simply writing "Deceased, Return to Sender" and leaving the envelope in the mailbox for the postmaster to return.

21. Notify insurance and financial institutions.

If your loved one had a life insurance policy, it’s important to alert the carrier of the death and begin the process of submitting a claim against the policy. With banks and financial institutions, we recommend calling each institution ahead of time to pre-arrange a conversation, or meeting, with a manager-level employee to save time by making sure they’re familiar with the internal procedures for handling these conversations. During these calls, be sure to also ask what documentation they will require before discussing details of the account with you, and whether these documents (like death certificates) must be originals or can be certified copies.

22. Open new bank account. Transfer or retitle assets.

Depending upon the type of account and whether it was co-titled or shared with another individual, remaining funds must generally be transferred into a new account titled in the name of the estate. This new bank account will also serve as the checking account used to pay any ongoing bills such as mortgages, utilities, or receive funds like unearned wages. Be sure to access any safe deposit boxes in order to inventory the contents, or open a new security box to safe-keep any valuables found within the home.

23. Cancel services, utilities, drivers licenses, SSN, & voter’s registration.

If not already done by the funeral home, someone will need to contact the social security office to report the death and apply for any survivor’s benefits. These reports cannot be made online, so instead, you will need to call the applicable social security local field office or the national 1-800 number: 1-800-772-1213. To further help prevent fraud or identity theft, you should also cancel any driver’s licenses, voter’s registrations, & unused services or accounts such as cable, internet & monthly subscriptions. While it's common for family members to keep government issued documents like Passports as a memento, they can also be destroyed or cancelled and returned to the family by working with the U.S. Department of Service CLASP unit.

... Wait, identity risk after death? Yep, you heard that right. In fact you might be surprised, but fraudsters' often use techniques like "ghosting" to strike victims after death, causing a nightmare of problems for surviving family members.

24. Identify and pay important bills or outstanding claims.

Keep track of any bills or claims paid by the estate or payments received, such as unearned income or social security benefits. This accounting will be important for sharing as an accurate and transparent reporting to the probate court, advisors, family and on income tax forms of the estate. It can be helpful to also indicate which bills are ongoing (such as utilities, rent/mortgage, credit cards or car loans). Not only will this help ensure the bills are paid on time, but also provides a great way to monitor usage and assess when these services can be cancelled if being unused (i.e. cable, phone & internet services).

25. Compile inventory of all assets.

One of the largest responsibilities of an executor is compiling a complete inventory of all assets in the estate and their estimated fair market value. While this is formally required for determining whether probate is necessary or what inheritance taxes may be due, it’s also a best practice to help minimize the likelihood of arguments among family members. For many items, especially those with sentimental value or similar descriptions such as jewelry, collectibles or family heirlooms, it can be really helpful to include pictures of the asset within the inventory report to help avoid confusion. Some estate-settlement platforms, like Atticus, help make this as simple as snapping a photo of assets to be uploaded into the report automatically.

26. Tackle the digital footprint.

Many online or digital platforms have a unique process outlined for closing an account, while others like Facebook simply allow others to memorialize the account. Be sure to talk with family members to reach an agreement before any accounts are closed, especially if you’re able to download any data to save. This is also true for email accounts. Also, don’t forget to look for any files, purchased media or pictures stored on computer hard drives.

 

Final Finishes

27. Make a decision about compensation for the executor.

Though not required, many individuals (and effectively all attorneys or professional executors) elect to take some compensation based upon the amount of work involved. Each state has its own laws around the maximum fees allowable, which is generally based upon a combination of the value of the assets, degree of complexity and overall time involved. It’s helpful to review these laws, or use an online executor fee calculator, to help determine what compensation is allowable for your situation before deciding whether or not to claim the fee.

28. File returns & pay any taxes.

Generally, a Form 1040 individual income taxes will need to be filed for the portion of year covering Jan 1st until the date of passing. Additionally, a Form 1041 “estate” income tax return will need to be filed covering the remaining portion of the year from the date of death until Dec 31st, and annually thereafter until the estate is closed. Depending on the primary residence of the individual, state income tax returns will also be required– again, both for the individual and for the estate.

It’s important to be aware that other death taxes exist and should be considered, such as estate tax or inheritance tax. In reality, these are uncommon as the exemption amounts are set very high and therefore generally only apply to a small minority of very large estates, particularly at the federal level. Although many people use the terms "estate tax" and "inheritance tax" interchangeably, they are not the same thing and have a few differences. Generally speaking, an estate tax is a state or federal tax on the overall value of an estate and is payable by the estate, whereas an inheritance tax is based only on the value of inheritance received by a beneficiary from the estate, with the beneficiary being responsible for paying the applicable tax not the estate. There is no federal inheritance tax and only a handful of states impose one (Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey & Pennsylvania).

29. Distribute assets to heirs & beneficiaries.

Once you feel confident that all claims have been settled and taxes paid, you can begin to distribute any remaining assets to named heirs & beneficiaries.  

30. Final report & close the estate

Upon final distribution of the estate’s assets, and assuming no ongoing family disputes or creditor claims exists, a final estate inventory reporting can be filed with the probate court in order to officially complete the process and close the estate. As is customary with most legal or tax-sensitive documents, it’s recommended (or pseudo required) to keep all statements, accountings, forms, and tax returns for a period of 7-10 years as documentation in case any questions or problems later arise.

Whew! Ok, that's it. Remember that early advice we mentioned about maintaining self-care throughout the process? We meant it. Sure, there's a lot of things to take care of following the loss of a loved one, but being able to help is truly an honorable opportunity and a testament to a close and trusted relationship.

So don't lose sight or let anyone diminish all of the heartfelt and meaningful efforts you take throughout this process. Instead, cherish that honor. Cherish their honor. As they say, "a heart that hurts is a heart that works…” And you’ve certainly doing some heart-requiring work.

It's Your Turn

So now we'd like to hear from you.  

Which part of this guide did you find the most surprising or helpful?

Or maybe you've had a unique experience, story or helpful tip you'd like to share? 

Let us know by leaving a quick comment below.

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