There are many important legal matters to take care of after a death. We recommend that you contact a lawyer as soon as possible to help you with your next steps and make sure everything is properly handled. If the deceased had a will in place at the time of their death, you should reach out to the attorney or law firm that handled creating that document for them. Death can be an emotional time for family members who are left trying to sort out the details, and a good attorney can help you understand the process and what to expect as you move forward.
Documents to Gather
Before reaching out to an attorney, you should try to locate the following documents and be as organized as possible. You may search for these documents in a filing cabinet, safe, or in a safe deposit box located at a financial institution or other place the deceased may have stored important paperwork.
- Birth Certificate
- Driver’s License or State Identification Card
- Passport (if applicable)
- Social Security card
- Citizenship Papers (if not born in the United States)
- A copy of the marriage license, if the decedent was your spouse
- Veteran’s discharge certificate (if served in the military)
Financial and Insurance Documents
- Financial statements, such as those from banks, credit unions, brokerages, retirement accounts, pensions, etc.
- Recent tax returns.
- Documentation for prepaid funeral costs, cemetery deed or burial insurance paperwork
- Information on safe deposit boxes, if applicable
- Mortgage statements
- Insurance policies (term life, final expense, health, preneed, accident, property, and auto)
- Disability claims
Real Estate and Property
- Real estate deeds/titles
- Auto/boat/RV titles
- Storage unit information
- Last Will and Testament (if there is one). Determine who is named as the executor or personal representative. That person should be involved when you contact the attorney.
- Revocable Living Trust
- Divorce/Annulment Decrees or Prenuptial Agreements
What to do with bank accounts after someone dies can depend on the laws of your area. You should contact any financial institutions as soon as possible to determine the best way to handle any accounts.
The procedures for handling bank accounts after the account holder has died vary regionally. Bank accounts are automatically frozen after a death in some areas. The bank should be notified as soon as possible after a death so that you can learn their procedures for releasing funds or transferring accounts to avoid any unnecessary delay. It is usually recommended to leave any accounts open for at least six months after the death to ensure remaining bills continue to be paid and so you can deposit any funds made payable to the deceased. You should also keep a close eye on bank statements to identify any ongoing automatic charges or debits that need to be canceled. You will need a Certified Copy of a Death Certificate to take the deceased’s name off any joint accounts or to access any safe deposit boxes held at the bank.
You will need several copies of the Certified Death Certificate before you can begin wrapping up your loved one’s end of life matters. We will help you determine how many copies you need and get them ordered for you.
A certified copy of the Death Certificate will be required for most tasks you will need to complete after someone passes away. We recommend that you order multiple copies because you will need the originals for most agencies you need to work with. It is also more cost effective to order copies along with the original Certified Death Certificate because copies generally cost far less than the first certificate. We can help you determine how many copies you may need based on the decedent’s accounts and get them ordered as soon as possible.
A will is an important legal document that specifies how you want your assets to be distributed after your death. It can also appoint guardians for any minor children or other important considerations you may have. A large majority of people do not have a will in place despite it being a relatively simple document.
Writing a will can feel overwhelming and a lot of people avoid the task, however it is a relatively easy and inexpensive process. Once you have written a will, you can have the peace of mind knowing it is done and your affairs will be managed according to your wishes after you die. This is especially important if you have young children who need care after you pass and you want to have control over selecting their guardians.
The requirements for a will vary depending on your state, however typically the following criteria must be met:
- You must be at least 18 years of age and of sound mind when the will is written,
- The document must expressly state that it is your will,
- It must be typed, although there are exceptions for handwritten wills in some situations,
- It must be signed and dated by the person making the will.
- It must be signed by two to three witnesses who are not interested parties in the will (meaning they are not going to inherit anything.)
It is encouraged to contact a lawyer to help you complete your will, and any other estate documents you may need, such as a trust or Power of Attorney, although there are software programs that can guide you through the process. After you have finalized your will, please be sure to keep it somewhere safe and secure. Generally your attorney will keep a copy on file if you hired one to help you with the creation of the will. You should keep a copy in a location that is accessible after your death, such as a fireproof safe or other protected area. It is generally not recommended to keep one in a safe deposit box as your executor may not be able to access the contents immediately after your death. You should also inform your executor of the location of your will or other important documents so they know where to locate them when necessary.
Probate is the formal legal process of wrapping up an individual’s estate after they pass away. While probate can feel overwhelming, here are some general guidelines about the process so you know what to expect.
Probate is the legal process of wrapping up the affairs of the decedent, including transferring title on property from the estate to any beneficiaries or heirs and paying off any creditors that may exist. If there is a will with a named executor, that person opens the probate process with the court and begins the formal probate procedures. A comprehensive inventory of any assets and debts will be created, notice will be given to any heirs or creditors, and the executor will begin paying off debts and taxes. They will also get current valuations for any property that is part of the estate and distribute any assets according to the terms of the will, once the will has been proven to be valid. Many people try to avoid probate because it can be a long and complicated process depending on your state and the complexity of the decedent’s estate. You should check with an attorney to see if you need to follow the formal probate process or if there are other alternatives available in your area.
An executor (also known as a personal representative or administrator in some states), is the person responsible for wrapping up the decedent’s affairs after they pass away. This person is generally named in the will, however the court can appoint an executor if there is not a will or the person named does not want this duty. The executor is responsible for handling the probate process (or hiring an attorney to do this for them.)
In the formal probate process, the executor works with the court to administer the decedent’s estate after they pass. This includes preparing an inventory of any assets and debts, notifying any heirs and creditors, paying any remaining debts, and eventually distributing any assets as specified in the will. In the event there is not a will in place, the executor may be appointed by the court and assets will be distributed according to the intestate succession laws of the state. You may choose your executor when you create your will, but it is recommended to choose a person who is competent and trustworthy. It is also a good idea to review your will every few years and ensure that your named executor is still someone who you trust with the role. You may also consider naming a backup executor in the event the person you name declines the responsibility.