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  • Christine Cracchiolo

What to Do When a Loved One Passes Away

A Survivor’s Guide

This checklist serves to guide survivors through important steps that should be reviewed and followed at a time when grief might easily cause items to be overlooked. Please review this checklist carefully and take the recommended action to the extent possible.

Immediate Steps:


Call 911 immediately (if there is an unexpected death in your home).

If the Deceased was receiving hospice care, call hospice.


Check to see if organ donors.

Determine from the Decedent's driver's license, wallet card or legal documents if organ transplants or organ donations are designated and take immediate steps to obtain medical assistance for saving those donated organs.


Arrange for transportation of the body.

If no autopsy is needed, the body can be picked up by a funeral home (by law, a funeral home must provide price information over the phone) or crematorium. You must decide which funeral home will handle the body. This choice must be communicated to the service who was caring for the person: hospice, hospital, nursing home, etc. If the body is in the custody of the Coroner or Medical Examiner, you will have to notify them of the same, prior to releasing the body.


Notify the Decedent’s doctor.

Contact immediate family members and close friends.

Arrange for the care of dependents.

Are there minor children of the Decedent who need immediate attention? If so, be sure they are properly cared for.

Arrange for the care of pets.

The Decedent may have pets that need care.


Contact the Decedent’s attorney.

Contact the Decedent's attorney for relevant estate planning documents, instructions, and advice.


Locate the Decedent’s “Final Disposition Authorization and Instructions” or “Durable and Enforceable Funeral and Burial Instructions”.

Search the Decedent’s records to see if the Decedent left any after-death instructions; instructions may be located in the Decedent’s Estate Planning Notebook. Your loved one may have filled out the “Final Disposition Authorization and Instructions”, which The Forakis Law Firm provides to its clients. This document will provide the burial/cremation wishes of your loved one, provide details of any arrangements that have been made, and name the person(s) to carry out the wishes.


Call Decedent’s employer.

Call the human resource department of the Decedent’s employer, if he or she was working. Request information about benefits (employer life insurance, 401(k), pension or accident insurance) and any pay or paid time off (PTO) due.


Protect.

Consider a property that was under the Decedent's control and custody, including business property, to determine whether that property is in need of arrangements to protect it against theft or loss.

  • The Decedent's car or house may need to be locked or protected/secured.

  • Do not allow anyone to take personal property from the home.

  • If individuals that you do not know or trust have keys to the house, consider changing the locks.

  • Try not to leave the house vacant, as this may have consequences for insurance coverage. Contact the insurance agent that sold the insurance policy to discuss ongoing coverage.

  • Notify the police, to occasionally check the house of the Decedent.

  • At the time of the funeral, be certain to have the Decedent's home guarded.


Take an inventory of household goods.

To eliminate the removal of keepsakes by relatives or friends, we recommend that an inventory of household goods and personal effects be made as soon as possible after a death so that these can be identified and safeguarded for distribution as prescribed by the Decedent's Will or Trust. If the Decedent had a Home Inventory prepared, locate the inventory. A photographic or video inventory is recommended.


Arrange for the disposal of any perishable items in the Decedent’s home.

Such items would include food, refrigerated items, and existing refuse.


Arrange for mail delivery.

Arrange to have the Decedent's mail handled securely. Consider transferring the address for mail delivery to prevent a pile-up of mail at the Decedent's house. If necessary, direct the Post Office to withhold delivery until a Personal Representative has been appointed.


Make Funeral, Memorial, or Celebration of Life Arrangements.

  • Determine if any funeral or other arrangements have been prearranged. This information may be located in the “Final Disposition Authorization and Instructions”.

  • Meet with a funeral director to make arrangements for the funeral service. This will include how the Decedent will be cared for, whether you will have a burial or cremation, and what type of ceremony or service will be held.

  • State law requires that the funeral establishment provide the responsible party with Consumer Guide to Arizona Funerals, general price list before discussing funeral arrangements, casket price list (casket costs are separate from funeral service costs), outer burial container price list before discussing purchase of outer burial containers.

  • You will be asked to sign a contract called a Statement of Funeral Goods and Services, which lists your selections. Read the contract carefully before signing. The contract includes a professional fee and other itemized charges. Charges vary widely so you may wish to compare with other establishments (Funeral homes are required to provide price information over the phone if requested).

  • Cemetery Arrangements, if applicable. If a gravesite or burial plot has not already been purchased, meet with officials of the selected cemetery to purchase interment property (e.g., grave plot, crypt, niche for an urn). The funeral director may be able to make these arrangements on behalf of your family.

  • Funeral and Memorial Products. Select and purchase the necessary merchandise (casket, burial vault, urn, etc.) and memorial items (grave marker, online memorial, prayer cards, funeral programs).

  • If your loved one has served in the U.S. Military, check the website www.USMilitary.about.com and search for information on Military Honors available at burial such as US Flag and Military Representative.


Prepare an obituary.

An obituary may be submitted to the local newspaper and newspapers in towns where the Decedent had significant connections. Consider including the following information: the Decedent’s age, place of birth, cause of death, occupation, college degrees, memberships held, military service, outstanding work, and survivors in the immediate family. Provide time and location of funeral services. The funeral home usually provides this service.


Memorial donations.

If memorial donations are to be substituted for flowers, decide on the organization and announce it in the obituary.


Next Steps


Obtain a minimum of 10 copies of the death certificate.

Most institutions will require a copy of the death certificate to properly handle the Decedent’s accounts. These range from various government agencies like the IRS and Social Security to credit cards, insurance companies, and financial institutions. You can order certified copies of the death certificate from the county Department of Vital Records, but in most cases, the funeral director will assist you in obtaining the copies.


Gather and secure important documents.

See if there is a “Records Location Worksheet” or “Important Records Worksheet” is with the Decedent’s Estate Plan. We recommend that all of our clients leave a list of important documents so that family can locate these items as soon as possible after death.

  • Legal Papers

  • Will

  • Trust

  • Final Disposition Authorization and Instructions

  • Pre-paid funeral contracts

  • Birth Certificate

  • Social Security Card

  • Driver’s License

  • Marriage Certificate

  • Court documents for divorce, adoption, name change, citizenship, immigration, etc.

  • Military discharge papers for veterans

  • Passport

  • Deeds, Titles, Personal Property Inventory, Promissory Notes

  • Real Estate Property deeds

  • Mortgage documents

  • Promissory Notes

  • Personal Property Inventory/Home Inventory

  • Vehicle title and registration papers: automobiles, boats, RVs, etc.

  • Insurance Policies

  • Life insurance

  • Accidental Life insurance

  • Veterans’ insurance

  • Employer insurance

  • Funeral insurance

  • Mortgage and/or credit insurance - some loans, mortgages, and credit card accounts are covered by credit life insurance, which pays off account balances. Contact each insurance company about how to claim the policy benefits

  • Health insurance: medical, dental, etc.

  • Property insurance: Home, Automobile, etc.

  • Umbrella insurance

  • Financial Accounts

  • Bank accounts - checking, savings, CDs, etc. (bank books, debit cards, statements)

  • Investment/brokerage accounts, IRAs, 401(k)s, etc.

  • College savings accounts (529 Plans)

  • Stocks and bonds

  • Annuities

  • Credit Cards and Credit Card reward points

  • Safe Deposit Box information – bank branch, where to find keys and names of authorized users

  • User names and passwords for all online accounts

  • Other Financial Records

  • Employer/retirement benefit plans, pension/profit-sharing plans, etc.

  • Veterans’ benefit records

  • Income statements for the current year (Social Security, pension, IRS, annuities, employment, and other income records)

  • Income Tax Returns for the current and previous year

  • Gift Tax Returns for all years

  • Property tax records

  • Business interests held financial statements and agreements, contracts, etc.

  • Survivor annuity benefit papers

  • Credit Card Reward Points

  • Personal Information

  • Names and contact information for family and friends

  • Names and contact information for an attorney, accountant, financial advisor, doctor, etc.

  • User names and passwords for any online accounts (email, financial, social media, etc.)

  • Passwords to access computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.

  • Monthly Bills

  • Utility (electric, telephone, cable TV, internet, cell phones, water, etc.)

  • Rental (apartment, assisted living, nursing home, etc.)

  • Credit Cards

  • Insurance (health, long term care, home, automobile, life, etc.)

  • Property Tax

  • Long Term Debt (mortgage, line of credit, automobile loan, student loans)


Organize monthly bills.

Make a list of all regular bills and note when payments are due or if on an automatic payment plan. Contact each credit card company, utility company, etc. and alert them of the death. Ask for a grace period if necessary.


Take care of pending business transactions.

Determine from the Decedent's family or business associates any pending business transactions that may need immediate attention. Check the Decedent's calendar, appointment book, correspondence, and unpaid bills. Consider the necessity for immediate probate proceedings or action by previously-appointed Trustees to protect against business losses.


Contact additional friends, family, and advisors.

Consider advising the following persons of the Decedent's death:

  • Relatives.

  • Attorney.

  • Clergy; schedule service if desired.

  • Business associates, professional organizations, clubs, and charities.

  • Neighbors.

  • Friends; obtain information from the personal address book or mailing lists.

  • Personal physicians (primary care physicians, dentists or other specialists).


Attend to email, online accounts, and social media accounts.

Keep all email accounts open for several months, as important correspondence may only be accessible through email accounts.


Record expenses.

Maintain a detailed list of all expenses relating to the final care and/or death of the Decedent. You will probably be able to obtain reimbursement for these expenses from the Decedent's estate, and some of these expenses will be deductible for estate tax or income tax purposes.


Notification of Death

Notify life insurance companies.

Notify all life insurance companies and request claim forms and instructions. Get a list of all the beneficiaries of the insurance policies with their relationship to the Decedent, their current address and phone number.


Notify other insurance carriers.

Notify all other insurance carriers i.e., health, long term care, umbrella, disability, accidental death, travel, vehicle, homeowners or renter's insurance. Make certain that adequate liability and loss insurance coverage is in force to protect all assets and all persons concerned. Check homeowners’ insurance for unoccupied house coverage.


Notify Social Security Administration.

The Social Security Administration should be notified in order to collect some remuneration for funeral expenses, stop benefits and/or request spousal benefits. You can contact them at 800-772-1213 or at www.ssa.gov.


Notify Medicare, if applicable.

If Decedent left minor children or other dependents, they may qualify for benefits.


Notify the Veterans’ Administration.

Apply for benefits (survivors may be eligible for death or disability benefits).


Notify financial institutions.

Contact all of the financial institutions that hold any assets of the Decedent. Tell them you need the date of death values on each asset in each account. Ask them to send you a copy of this information.


Notify banks, but keep bank accounts open.

Keep bank accounts open until the Estate is settled. This typically takes six months to two years.


Notify all three credit reporting agencies.

To protect against identity theft, notify the three major credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

  1. Equifax - P.O. Box 105873 Atlanta, GA 30348 - (800) 685-1111

  2. Experian - P.O. Box 2104 Allen, TX 75013-2104 - (888) 397-3742

  3. TransUnion - P.O. Box 1000 Chester, PA 19022 - (800) 916-8800


Cancel professional licenses (if applicable).


Close Businesses (LLC’s, Corporations)


Cancel credit cards.

Cancel any credit cards. Be sure to use all reward points prior to cancelation. Check to see if there are any death benefits on the credit cards. Cash in accrued airline miles.


Cancel services are no longer needed.

You may want to cancel the Decedent’s newspaper and magazine subscriptions, cell phone, internet, and cable. Do not cancel utilities that may still be needed.


Contact Department of Motor Vehicles.

Cancel Decedent’s driver’s license and transfer titles of all registered vehicles.


Settling the Estate

Set a meeting with an attorney.

As soon as the immediate steps are taken, contact the Decedent's attorney or your attorney to ensure all legal actions are being taken.


Save medical expenses and charitable donation receipts.

Save all receipts for medical expenses and charity donation receipts or tax write-off purposes.


Examine Will and Trust.

These legal documents set forth the Decedent's guidelines as to how the Estate is to be administered and distributed.


Submit Will for Probate.

There will not be a probate if all the assets have been funded into a living trust. If it is determined that probate is necessary, it should be decided whether to make application for informal probate or to initiate formal testacy proceedings.


Publish Notice to Creditors. In a probate proceeding, a notice of the appointment of the Personal Representative must be published to begin the statute of limitations for the time period of creditors to file their claims.


Collect and inventory assets and liabilities:

  • Collect all cash in the name of the Decedent.

  • Inventory of household goods and effects. Write down serial numbers or identifying information of all items over $500.

  • Collect life insurance payable to Estate.

  • Arrange for supervision and management of business interests.

  • Obtain custody of securities and collect interest and dividends.

  • Review leases, check taxes against and loans on real estate and other loans and arrange for management.


Have assets appraised?

Obtain the value of the property as of the date of death and hire appraisers if necessary for real property.


Administer the Estate.

The administration of the Estate is governed by the provisions of the Will or Trust and requirement of the Estate.

  • Give attention to business interests and determine the policy of continuance, liquidation, or sale with due regard to expressions in the Will or Trust and family needs. Review by/sell and stock redemption agreements.

  • Review all assets and cash requirements. Determine which assets will be sold if needed for immediate funds.

  • If real estate is to be sold, determine to ask price and offer for sale. If no sale is necessary, attend to the production of the highest possible income, negotiating leases if necessary.

  • Settle claims. All claims filed should be investigated to determine validity. Claims should be either approved or rejected and presented to the court for final action.


Determine and settle taxes.

A highly complex procedure involving the choice of numerous options that may be used to reduce both income and estate taxes must be considered by the Personal Representative, Trustee, attorney, and accountant.

Income Taxes. Engage an accountant to:

  • File an income tax return for the part of the year prior to Decedent's death.

  • File returns for the Estate or Trust for the period after death.

  • Review returns open to audit and considers the possibility of a refund claim.

  • Estate Taxes. Engage an attorney and accountant to:

  • Prepare and file estate tax returns if required.

  • Take steps to obtain tax releases on all real and personal property.


Distribute the Estate.

Distribute assets per terms of the Will or Trust.


Prepare Final Accounting.

The final accounting consists of a detailed statement of receipts and disbursements and distribution of assets.


Discharge of Personal Representative.

If a probate estate was opened, when all of the claims have been paid and the property distributed, the Personal Representative may then file a Closing Statement.


Trust Administration.

Probate is avoided when all the Decedent's assets are in a living trust. Many of the above steps, therefore, can be eliminated. However, an inventory will have to be taken of all the assets in the Trust and the date of death values determined. The trust assets may be divided into the sub-trusts (a bookkeeping entry) in accordance with the instructions in the trust agreement. Accurate records must be kept so that accountings can be made and tax returns filed.


Remove Decedent from your Estate Plan.

Your own Estate Plan documents should be changed if the Decedent was part of your plan. Make sure you change the beneficiary designation on your IRA, life insurance policies, pension plans, 401(k) plans, and other investment or retirement plans.

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