By: Marc S. Levine, Esq.
Published: December, 2021
What are some of the practical considerations when a loved one dies? A lot of estate planning is about planning for low-probability / high-impact events – such as an early or unexpected death, as well as planning for the reality that all of us will pass at some point. This is one of the most important aspects of what we do – helping people navigate what can be a very complicated and often upsetting maze of what has to be done after someone dies.
Right after Death
There are a number of things that have to be dealt with from a practical point of view, including:
- Arranging for a determination of death by a doctor or arranging for someone to come and do the pronouncement. If hospice was involved, they will guide you. If they were not, contact 911.
- Determine the decedent’s wishes for the funeral, service and body. If they had a medical directive or Last Will and Testament, review it to see what the wishes were, and get in touch with a mortuary or a crematorium, to transport the body. Make sure you confirm the cost with them over the phone. The funeral home will help you to obtain multiple death certificates that will be needed for financial institutions, government agencies, and insurers. Assume you will need more than you think you will.
- Contact family, including dependent children and other dependent family members (including older parents), close friends and, where appropriate, colleagues to help, and to notify other family and friends. Although there may be very specific plans about what ultimately happens with children, parents, and pets, the first and most important responsibility is to make sure they are cared for in the short term. Where the decedent was primarily responsible for them, this takes on added importance.
- Contact the church, synagogue or mosque, if appropriate.
- If no one will be living in the home, make sure you secure it (and its contents) as a vacant home is both a target for criminals and more likely to be damaged through negligence.
- Arrange for someone to collect their mail (until it can be forwarded) and water plants. The information in the mail will be vital in dealing with issues later, so make sure someone keeps track of it.
The next step is to see if your loved one had done any estate planning. If so, locate the Last Will and Testament or revocable trust and, ideally, contact the estate planning attorney to find out preferences for burial, cremation, service, etc., and if there was a prepaid plan. Your loved one, if in the military or belonging to a fraternal or religious group, may have burial benefits available to them, or the organization may conduct funeral services.
Soon After Death
While most other things that have to happen after death are not urgent, the best next step is to contact the decedent’s trust and estate attorney, if they have one, or yours if they do not have one. Schedule a meeting as soon as you are comfortable (perhaps even sooner) to review what estate administration issues there will be, including:
- What are the assets;
- What assets will pass directly to the beneficiaries through a beneficiary designation or by joint ownership, if they were owned joint with rights of survivorship;
- What assets pass through a revocable trust, if there is one;
- What assets pass through probate if there is no revocable trust, and sometimes even if there is one.
Remember to have a detailed discussion with the attorney regarding how the attorney gets paid, and do not agree to any “default” systems provided by the state.
Even where all assets appear to be joint or beneficiary designation, there may be tax issues, tax filing issues, or complications in determining how the last and continuing expenses will be handled. There may be refunds or checks received weeks or months later that can require filings that would not otherwise be necessary.
Call the person’s employer, if they were working. Request information about benefits and any pay due. Ask whether there was a life‑insurance policy through the company. Also inquire about their personal effects at work.
If your loved one was a Federal government employee, or retiree, review this site: https://www.handlerlevine.com/resources/federal-employee-information-links/, which has the information needed for applying for Federal benefits such as the retirement annuity, last paycheck/accrued leave, life insurance and the Thrift Savings Plan account. If their employing agency has agency-specific benefits, make sure you contact the human resources department in that agency.
Next and Ongoing
If a probate estate will be necessary, then the executor (you, or the person named in the Will), needs to submit the Last Will and Testament (if any) to the county to be accepted for probate. Once a probate is open it is vital that estate assets be kept separate from personal assets and that all of the assets be collected into estate accounts or ownership.
The executor is responsible for filing an Inventory of probate assets and preparing one or more accountings for the receipt, use and distribution for all probate assets. In addition, the executor must determine if a personal tax return (State and Federal) is due for the deceased, and ensuring that the appropriate estate (“fiduciary”) tax return is filed. Check with the estate attorney to find out if an estate tax return is necessary or advisable.
Ongoing issues for the estate, or even when there is no probate estate, include:
- Maintain hazard insurance policies on real estate (often hard to do with vacant homes);
- Keep control of vehicles as there are insurance issues in allowing anyone other than the executor to drive them, or for anyone to drive them for non-estate purposes;
- Make sure the mortgage is up to date, even if funds must be borrowed (as long as there is sufficient equity in the house);
- Cancel purchases for travel, but check if insurance is available on them;
- Make sure all credit card statements are available and in your possession, then cancel credit cards issued to the decedent;
- File claims for medical reimbursement and casualty insurance;
- Determine and then pay (after the claim period expires) claims, expenses and taxes of the decedent and of his or her estate in consultation with the Court or an estate attorney – but be aware that creditors are aggressive in trying to collect debts even if they would not be entitled to them;
- In consultation with the Court or an estate attorney, make a final distribution of the probate assets.
Throughout the entire process:
Take care of yourself. The job of dealing with someone’s death is not only full of details, inanities, and bureaucracy, but often mourning as well. Remember that while there is a great deal to do, the process allows time for mourning interspersed with the need for action. Most administrations of trusts and estates are “hurry up and wait” and things will progress unevenly.
Mr. Marc Levine, Esq., has been practicing with his firm, Handler & Levine, LLC, and its predecessor firms, since 1992, in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Mr. Levine regularly represents individuals, including Federal government employees, in preparing their estate plans, including wills, trusts, powers of attorney, health care directives, beneficiary designations and other estate planning documents. He represents executors and trustees in estate and trust administration. He is a seminar presenter for NITP, Inc.