Death of a Loved One

There is a life that needs to be closed out after someone dies, which is often a process that takes time and hard work.  After the appropriate medical professional issues the legal pronouncement of death, and after loved ones arrange the funeral and burial or cremation, the funeral home often helps you obtain one or more death certificate(s) from the state’s vital records division.  But with death certificate in hand, what additional duties do you have if you are the person responsible for settling your loved one’s affairs?  

First and foremost, you need to identify what role you are taking on.  In Arizona, a person who dies with a Last Will and Testament will designate a Personal Representative to oversee the administration of their estate.  If your deceased loved one had a revocable trust, you might also be named the Successor Trustee upon their death.  Each of these roles have distinct functions, so it is important to properly identify the role you are taking on.

Once you have the death certificate and have confirmed your role as Personal Representative and/or Trustee, there are several actions you should complete immediately (within a few weeks), including the following:

  • Contact the Social Security Administration.  If your loved one was receiving Social Security benefits, those payments need to stop (and SSA may require that their most recent benefit payment be refunded).  Also, there may be a death benefit to collect. 
  • Find, marshal, and inventory the decedent’s assets.  Sometimes your loved one will have already discussed this with you, and you may even have a list of accounts with passwords.  Other times it is necessary to monitor incoming mail and search through the decedent’s files and computer to track everything down.  Marshaling the assets means securing property.  The sooner you can secure the property, which may include changing the locks on a house or obtaining a safe deposit box to hold valuables, the less likely certain valuable items will suddenly and inexplicably disappear.
  • Determine if a probate is necessary.  If there are any assets that were titled in the decedent’s name at death that did not have any kind of automatic beneficiary designation (like a typical life insurance policy would have), you will likely find that there is no way to sell or otherwise transfer that title without court authority.  That authority is obtained through legal filings with the probate court.
  • Contact providers of all liability insurance policies.  You may need to maintain coverage of certain assets until they are sold, i.e. the house and the cars, but you should terminate any unnecessary policies as soon as possible and request a refund of any unused premium payments.
  • Cancel unnecessary services.  While you may need to continue water and power services to maintain a house that needs to be sold, you should eliminate the monthly expenses of maintaining a cell phone, audio and video streaming services, cable, internet, etc.
  • Take steps to prevent identity fraud.  Contact the state’s motor vehicle division to cancel their driver’s license, and contact the credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, to notify them of the death, but also to obtain a credit report that will help you make sure that you know all the credit card accounts that need to be canceled.
  • Secure digital assets.  Your loved one likely had one or more email accounts that need to be accessed and managed.  Perhaps there are social media accounts that need to be deleted or turned into memorial accounts.  If you do not have the passwords to these accounts, each company has its own processes that usually require providing a copy of the death certificate together with proof that you are the Personal Representative and/or Trustee.
  • Determine how your loved one has been filing their prior tax returns.  If they were using a CPA, contact him or her to discuss next steps.  If not, contact your CPA.  You are responsible for filing their final individual income tax return, as well as the estate’s income tax return.

As you can see, managing an estate can be complicated and the prospect of being the person responsible for settling a deceased loved one’s affairs can be overwhelming.  It is important to keep in mind that there are professionals that can help you fulfill these duties so that you can avoid doing anything that could lead to a significant personal liability. 

BCK has experienced estate attorneys who can be your trusted advisor as you navigate the process through these initial actions all the way toward a final distribution of the residual assets to the heirs of your loved one. Contact us today if you’d like to begin this conversation.

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