If you have recently lost a family member or friend, we are so sorry for your loss. Regardless of your relationship with the deceased, we know that the death of a loved one is complicated and emotionally heavy. We understand that you are likely grieving and overwhelmed, and we hope the following steps can be a small comfort and give guidance to you during this difficult time. These tips are written primarily for close relatives or friends who have been named or want to be named the personal representative (also known as the executor) for the deceased person’s estate. These steps do not cover all the requirements of the probate or estate administration process, but they offer initial direction in the days and weeks following your loved one’s death.
My Loved One Has Passed…Now What?
1. Stop. Grieve.
Many people feel pressure to take immediate action when a loved one passes. Funeral homes, creditors, loan companies, insurance companies, and other interested parties are experts at creating a false sense of urgency following a death to generate sales. But very few things need to be decided immediately when someone dies. Keep in mind that although certain tasks should be taken care of in a timely manner, nothing is dire or pressing. In the initial aftermath of a loved one’s death, the best thing you can do is slow down and allow yourself to experience the waves of complex emotions that wash over you. The more you process those emotions now, the healthier you will be throughout the coming days and the long grieving process. Additionally, it is a gift to the rest of your family to allow them to grieve rather than asking them to focus on completing a to-do list if they are not ready.
2. Handle the Funeral and Burial.
After giving yourself some time to process, the first thing you will need to do is handle the funeral and burial. Verify whether the deceased had any plans or wishes written down regarding their funeral and burial and see if they prepaid for any services. (This may require you to locate their will and other estate planning documents, if they have any.) If they did prepay for funeral services, read the documentation carefully to see what additional fees, if any, need to be paid. Funeral homes sometimes overcharge or double charge for services that have already been paid for once someone has died.
3. Don’t Qualify as the Personal Representative too Soon.
Do not rush to qualify as personal representative until you are sure that it is necessary. Once you have qualified with the court, you will be forced to file various documents and comply with a variety of rules. Depending on the deceased person’s assets, family, and estate plan, it may not be necessary for you to qualify. Once you have qualified, you can’t get out of it, even if you didn’t need to qualify to begin with. So, don’t rush to qualify until you are sure it is necessary.
4. Collect Information about Assets and Ownership.
Start gathering information about what assets the deceased owned, where they are located, and how they are titled. This can be difficult in some cases and often takes time. It is also a prerequisite to many of the things that will need to be done with the deceased person’s estate, so it makes sense to start it sooner rather than later. Often, you will need access to the deceased’s financial statements, online accounts, or mail to confirm what they owned.
5. Document and Secure Personal Property.
Make sure you secure all personal property that could be stolen. We have seen personal property mysteriously “walk off” after a death many times, especially when numerous family members or friends are involved. It is wise to take pictures or have witnesses when you first go through a house or open a safe or safety deposit box. It is not uncommon for family members or friends to accuse the person who has access to such personal property of theft. Always be sure you can honestly defend your actions.
6. Change the Locks on Real Property.
If the deceased owned a home or other real property, change the locks as soon as you can. You never know who was given a key in the past that should not have access now.
7. Ignore Bills and Creditors (for a Little While).
The deceased person will likely continue to receive bills to be paid. But some bills do not have to be paid immediately, or at all, now that your loved one has passed. Do not pay any bills until you get more information about what should and should not be paid. Never pay bills using your own money, because there is no guarantee you will get paid back. Also, do not call creditors to tell them that the person has passed. This will cause certain creditors, such as loan companies, to demand that the loan be refinanced, or other creditors, such as credit cards, to probe about assets so they can plan on how to recover the amounts owed. Wait to approach creditors until you understand what debts should and can be paid. Of course, you can’t wait forever, and waiting too long can sometimes have negative effects (such as interest and foreclosure), so exercise caution here.
8. Get the Death Certificate.
The death certificate is the official proof that the deceased person is dead, and you will need it for most tasks you are required to accomplish throughout the estate administration process. Get it as soon as you can and get multiple copies. You will need one original death certificate for the court, one for social security, and one for each financial institution the deceased has accounts with. Since death certificates are normally not expensive, we recommend doubling the number you think you will need so that you have extra on hand.
9. Forward Mail.
Unless you can easily check the deceased’s mail, consider forwarding their mail to your address. This will allow you to make sure it is received and processed in a timely manner. Consider using the Informed Delivery service from the post office, so you have a record of all the mail you received. This can be helpful in defending against claims that you hid or stole property that the deceased person owned.
10. Talk to an Experienced Estate Administration Attorney.
We frequently see people who have made mistakes in dealing with the deceased person’s estate and are now stuck in a time-intensive and expensive process that could have been avoided with proper guidance. Estate administration is a unique field within the legal world, and most lawyers do not understand it. Make sure you get advice about how to proceed from an attorney in your area who is experienced in estate administration.
NOTE: Each person’s estate is different, and there may be legal or tax deadlines that are applicable to the deceased’s estate which we have not addressed in this article. If you have questions about these types of deadlines, please talk to an experienced Estate Administration Attorney in your state.
Let Us Help You If Your Loved One Has Passed
If you have a loved one who has recently passed and you are feeling overwhelmed with all that there is to do, please contact us. We would love to help walk you through this difficult time and ensure you know what steps you need to take next. Click here to schedule an appointment with us.
Disclaimer: The information you obtain in this post is not, nor is intended to be, legal advice. This blog shares general best practices when navigating Virginia or West Virginia law, but you should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.