What to Do When a Relative Dies

by admin on October 28, 2010

If your relative just died, you’re likely feeling confused and overwhelmed with all the tasks that must get done — personal, legal and financial. Given the emotions involved your first inclination may be to just rush through your responsibilities so you can feel a sense of closure. Unfortunately, there are legal consequences you must consider.


Your first priority is the funeral — and with it comes an often large expense. In some cases, your relative may have left a prepaid funeral contract or instructions on how to handle the memorial service. In a situation where you end up paying for the funeral, keep a record of all expenses and burial costs. You can seek reimbursement from the estate afterwards.


Another important issue that requires immediate attention is the securing of your loved one’s property. Make sure the home and any other real estate are locked and maintained (e.g., don’t let mail pile up, cut grass, etc.) to avoid vandalism and burglary. If he or she had a car, it should be parked somewhere safe and not driven by anyone during the estate administration process.  Finally, any items of significant value (e.g., jewelry, collections, etc.) should be accounted for and secured from loss or theft.


Your next priority is to search for your loved one’s Last Will & Testament.  This document will name an “executor” who will be tasked with carrying out your loved one’s wishes and settling the estate (including hiring an attorney and handling the probate process). When searching for the Will, look in personal papers, household records, safes and bank boxes. If you find a photocopy of the Will but no original, contact the drafting attorney (he often holds the original for safekeeping). If you can’t find the original Will but think one was drafted, contact your attorney for advice.


The executor named in the Will does not have any legal authority to act on behalf of the estate until a legal proceeding known as “probate” begins. Guidance from an attorney who is experienced in probate law is almost always necessary because the distribution of assets often requires a court process that can lead to legal and tax issues (especially on large estates). Selling, distributing or changing title to a decedent’s property before authorized by a court in a probate/administration proceeding is illegal.  Even something as seemingly straightforward as filing for life insurance benefits or IRA payouts can cause legal and tax issues. Your attorney’s advice on these issues is invaluable.


The documents you’ll need when you meet with an attorney include:


Original Will
Original death certificate
List of your relative’s assets and debts with approximate value and ownership
Copy of the decedent’s most recent income tax return (if readily available)
Family tree for decedent showing parents, siblings, spouse(s) and children/grandchildren


These items aren’t always necessary for an initial appointment. In fact, some information may not be available at all until the legal probate process is started.  However, making an effort to gather these items up front will enable your attorney to provide you with the best possible advice. Gathering any missing paperwork or information will be your first bit of “homework” after the meeting.


The time and effort needed to gather this information, however, shouldn’t deter you from seeking an immediate legal advice.  You’re better served by getting together with your attorney as soon as possible and having “homework,” as opposed to spending several weeks gathering the documentation and then having your initial meeting.


Keep in mind, because each situation is different, a single article can’t provide everything you need to know in the days following a death. Establishing an early relationship with your attorney will help ensure all matters are properly addressed and save you from making costly mistakes in the future.


About the Author:
Joseph P. Donlon is a New York estate planning attorney and the founder of Donlon & Associates, PC. He is a frequent lecturer on estate planning topics and is routinely invited to speak before financial institutions, civic groups and business gatherings. Get more of his free tips and insider information about how to protect your family, reduce estate taxes and safeguard your assets at http://www.donlonlaw.com.
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