What to do when a loved one dies
When a loved one passes away, it is an understandably stressful time. It can be even more stressful trying to remember all of the details that must be taken care of after a person’s death. If you are in charge of handling the affairs of the decedent (the person who has died), here are some of the more important considerations:
Immediately Following Death
If the individual dies in a hospital or hospice, the medical personnel will take the lead on “next steps,” although they will want to know which mortuary or funeral home should be called at the appropriate time. If the individual dies at home, call the paramedics or police so that the proper pronouncement of death can be made.
Organ Donation/Anatomical Gifts
If the decedent has consented to be an organ donor or the family is willing to consent to organ donation and the individual dies at home, the paramedics should be called immediately and be sure to let the dispatcher know that the person is a potential organ donor as time is of the essence. If consent has been given for the body of the decedent to be an anatomical gift, follow the instructions provided by the institution or organization receiving the gift.
Notify Immediate Family
As soon as possible and practical, notify immediate family and friends about the death of the loved one. This will assist them in making arrangements, quickly, to be with you during this time. If a family member or close friend can be designated to make these contacts, this could relieve you of a great deal of stress. In order to assist them, it will be very helpful to prepare in advance an accurate listing of the names, addresses, and phone numbers of family and friends to be notified in the event of such emergencies.
There are a number of tasks with which family and friends can lend a hand, such as:
- answering the telephone
- collecting and sorting mail
- caring for pet or young kids
- locating important items such as keys, insurance policies, and claims forms
- staying at the home during the wake, funeral, and/or memorial services (to guard against break-ins that sometimes occur during that time)
- organizing food for after the services
Consult a lawyer
It is often wise to consult a lawyer experienced in estate, trust, and probate matters before attempting to deal with the decedent’s financial or legal affairs.
Notify the Clergy
Contact the Pastor, Rabbi, Priest or other designated religious leader in order to facilitate counseling for family members and members of the decedent’s congregation, synagogue, or parish. They may also be involved in making arrangements for final religious services.
Funeral Home and Cemetery/Crematorium
Check to see if advance plans have been made for funeral services, cremation, or burial. If no arrangements have been made, contact the funeral home or mortuary of your choice to carry out the final preparations and burial or cremation instructions. Advance preparation in this area alleviates a lot of stress during an already stressful period. Most funeral homes and/or mortuaries are happy to talk with individuals to provide helpful pre-needs information and arrangements. Someone will have to be authorized to make the decisions concerning the disposition of the remains of the decedent. (We recommend putting instructions in the durable power of attorney, instead of or in addition to the will. Maine law has a little-known provision that allows the Agent under a durable power of attorney to control disposition of the decedent’s remains, but only if the POA says so.) A final resting place should be secured if the body is to be buried, and the proper person will need to be notified of the date of interment as soon as a date is set.
Obtain Death Certificate
A death certificate must be completed and signed by either an attending physician, medical examiner/county coroner, or a registered professional nurse employed by the hospice. In Maine it is common for a funeral home to attend to these details. The death certificate is filed with a local registrar and transmitted to the vital records registration system for recording in the state’s official records. Certified copies (with a raised seal) of the death certificate can be obtained after the death certificate has been filed with the local registrar.
Copies of the Death Certificate
Once the death certificate is available, copies need to be sent to all insurance companies in order to receive the proceeds from any insurance policies, and to investment companies or banks. The funeral director will usually ask you how many copies of the death certificate you expect to need, and will order them when the death certificate is filed. Additional copies can be obtained later, if needed.
Notifying Employer, Social Security
Notify the employer of the decedent so that the proper paperwork can be completed. The Social Security Administration and any other income sources will also need to be notified. Funeral homes will typically notify Social Security if you have provided the decedent’s social security number to them. Any benefits received for the month during which death occurred (and later) must be returned to Social Security. Pensions, annuities and other income sources will have different rules. Contact the administrator of those plans for further details.
Notifying the Guardian, Conservator or Agent
If there is a guardianship, conservatorship, a power of attorney for finances, or a power of attorney for health care, those persons need to be notified that their responsibilities are at an end. Those power expire immediately with the death of the protected person.
Documents to locate
There are some documents that may be required or at least helpful in settling the estate of the decedent. These documents should be located and kept together in one place until they can be turned over to the Personal Representative, Trustee, lawyer, or other person with the legal right to wind up the affairs of the decedent. Included in the list of documents that should be located are:
- original Will
- funeral and burial plans/contracts
- safe deposit rental agreement and keys
- trust agreements
- pre- or post-nuptial agreements, marriage licenses, divorce papers
- life insurance policies or statements
- pension, IRA, retirement statements
- income tax returns for the past three years
- gift tax returns if ever filed
- birth and death certificates
- military records and discharge papers
- budgets/bookkeeping records
- bank statements, checkbooks, check registers, certificates of deposits
- deeds, mortgages and mortgage releases, title policies, leases
- motor vehicle titles
- stock and bond certificates and investment account statements
- unpaid bills, notes
- health/accident and sickness policies
- bankruptcy papers: filings and releases
If there is a valid Will, when the person dies, the person in possession of the original should deliver it to the Personal Representative named in the Will. In all but the simplest cases, a lawyer well-versed in estate, trust, and probate matters should be engaged to file for probate if it is required. Expenses of the last illness and funeral should be paid from the estate before any additional disbursements are made, and the Maine Probate Code contains a list of priorities for other debts and expenses. All remaining assets and properties can be disbursed through the probate process.
If the decedent had a revocable living trust, some or all of the decedent’s property may already be owned by the Trust. In this case, probate may not be required. Even a person who had a Trust usually has a Will, to dispose of any property not owned by the Trust at death. The Will usually says that any probate property is to be turned over to the Trustee named in the decedent’s Trust. A properly drafted Trust which holds all or most of the decedent’s property will save considerable time and expense by eliminating or minimizing probate.
No Will or Trust
If there is no Will or Trust, the decedent’s property passes by “intestate succession.” The Maine Probate Code dictates who is to receive the decedent’s property. In most cases, the decedent’s estate must still be administered in the county Probate Court.
If there was no property left in the decedent’s name and no other assets that need to be transferred, then there are probably very few estate matters to be handled. The Maine Probate Code includes a provision for distributing some small estates without probate.
If there are bank accounts on which someone is a “surviving owner” (the account may read “POD” or “TOD,” or joint ownership with “JTWROS” or “TIC”), a death certificate needs to be provided to the bank so that the surviving owner can now take ownership.
Letters should be sent to all known creditors informing them of the decedent’s death, plus the newspaper will publish a creditor notice if elected in the probate filings. Do not agree to personally be responsible for paying the balances on any outstanding account. The estate is liable, not individual family members unless that family member was a named account holder, regardless of the insistence of the creditor. If nothing remains in the estate to pay off debts, then creditors should be so informed that the estate is insolvent. Timely legal advice is very important if the decedent has significant debts.
Local utilities (telephone, gas, electricity, cable) should be notified only if someone else wants to be substituted on the accounts. Otherwise wait until you decide whether or not and when the utilities are to be discontinued. In any event, the utility bills must be paid in order to keep the utilities on.
Newspaper and Mail
The newspaper subscription should be discontinued if no one else resides at the home of the decedent. The Post Office should be directed to forward all of the decedent’s mail to the Personal Representative, especially if there is no surviving spouse. Newspapers or mail piling up at a decedent’s residence is an invitation to criminals.
Any tax refunds that arrive after the decedent’s death will be a part of the estate and will have to be distributed according to the Will or the intestate administration process.
Any taxes owed will have to be paid out of the estate, or by the surviving spouse if joint returns are filed. Like all other creditors, if the estate is insolvent and the debt is not jointly owed by some other person, IRS or Maine Revenue Service will have no means to collect.
Any homestead exemptions from real property taxes are based on the individual if that person was a veteran or otherwise qualified for an exemption. The exemption may no longer be available unless the new homeowner meets the requirements.
Personal Property / Homeowner’s Insurance
Things like titles to automobiles, automobile insurance, and house insurance will have to be changed eventually. Homeowner’s insurance policies should be reviewed carefully for instructions concerning coverage of unoccupied premises. The decedent’s home should remain insured until it is sold of transferred to a beneficiary designated in the Will or Trust.
If the decedent owned property in another state, “ancillary probate” may be required in every state in which the decedent owned real or tangible personal property. The Will will need to be probated in that other state so that the Personal Representative can be granted authority to handle property there. Estate taxes may be owed on property located in another state, even if the decedent’s home state (state of domicile) does not levy estate taxes.
Disposing of Personal Items and Clothing
Although emotionally difficult, efforts should be made to dispose of those personal items which will no longer be used by the survivors. This is the duty and legal right of the Personal Representative. The timing of this is handled differently from person to person. If too soon, it may prevent survivors from having adequate time to grieve; if it takes too long, it may seriously delay the ending of the grieving process, acting as a constant reminder of the person’s death.
No items should be moved, sold, given away, or otherwise disposed until it is clear that they have not been identified in the person’s Will or Trust as items to be distributed as a part of the estate. Only the legal beneficiary of those items is entitled to make the decision as to their disposal.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of every detail to which attention must be given nor does this alleviate the need to ask questions about topic areas that may not have been mentioned. It is an attempt to provide some initial guidance about some of the more fundamental practical and legal items to those having responsibility for handling the affairs of a loved one. The emotional issues are equally important, but for the most part, not addressed here. Special care should be taken when a loved one dies leaving young survivors or elderly survivors. Support groups and counselors should be contacted at the initial signs of depression.
It is also important to understand that estate affairs do not wind up quickly. It took a lifetime to set all of these things up; it may take a year to unwind it all.
This information has been prepared as a source of general information, and is based primarily on the laws and practices of Maine. Although it may be helpful to people in other states, where specific laws are concerned, persons are urged to seek legal advice from attorneys licensed to practice in the decedent’s state of residence. In the vast majority of cases, you will require the advice, and most likely the services, of a trust and estate attorney to assist with some of the items on this checklist. When in doubt, consult a local attorney with a reputation for expertise in such matters.
The information presented on this website is general in nature and not intended to be legal advice. No attorney-client relationship will exist with Jones, Kuriloff & Sargent, LLC unless we agree in writing after a personal consultation. Please contact us for a consultation on your particular situation.