Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What to do First When A Loved One Dies

Many people try to “take care of everything” in the first days following the death of a loved one. This is impossible and often makes matters worse. Forcing decisions can leave hard feelings. The law gives 30 days to start probate, but many probates start later. Administration of an estate takes time, often between six months and two years. Even the simplest tasks (like accessing funds in a payable on death bank account) may require a death certificate and several days.

1. Comfort the Survivors
Comforting survivors is job #1. In addition to emotional support, check whether survivors have access to money for living expenses.

Surviving family members and dependents may need several thousand dollars – enough to last for the 60 to 90 days it may take for the personal representative or others have time to arrange for transfers from decedent’s assets (if any). Sources of funds include survivor’s individual bank accounts, retirement or other financial assets, joint accounts or credit cards, POD/TOD accounts and Trusts with surviving Trustees.

Sometimes, family members and heirs are in town for a funeral or reception. Depending on their feelings, this may be a good time for a preliminary meeting with an attorney. Otherwise, it might be better to wait until you have more information. (See step 6).

2. Find the List (if one exists).
It will simplify decision-making if the decedent left instructions for final arrangements and/or where to locate papers or assets, Survivors may know where papers are located, If there was a will or trust and what other wishes the decedent may have had.

3. Help With or Make Final Arrangements
Helping make or confirm final arrangements is the second major priority. Organ donations may be indicated on driver’s licenses, powers of attorney for healthcare or powers of disposition of final remains. Funeral and burial (or other disposition) wishes may be stated in a will or power of disposition. There may be a funeral trust. While final arrangements cost money, most providers are used to the idea that payment will be delayed for some weeks while survivors work out the details of administration of the decedant’s estate. If you are approached for contribution to expenses, make sure you understand who, if anyone, has a responsibility to reimburse you and whether they have sufficient assets to do so.

4. Get Copies of the Death Certificate
The funeral home, county clerk or, in some cases, the coroner, will provide a copy of the death certificate. Death certificates are essential to administer estates and to prove death to parties who hold assets for the decedant and his or her heirs. It will often be helpful to have half a dozen originals as attorneys, courts and most financial institutions will want originals or copies.

5. Take Time For Grief
Each of us needs time to grieve and time to heal. Focusing on financial decisions delays our adjustment to a loss. Even if death appears to be a blessing, focusing on administration of the estate may make it more difficult to adjust.

6. When You Are Ready, Gather Information and Seek Advice
Gathering is NOT organizing. It is merely putting mail and readily available information about wills, trusts and assets in a safe place. Review the information you have gathered and make an appointment to discuss how the estate will be administered. If there is a trust, the beneficiaries should meet with the Trustee. Trustees should confer with their attorneys. If there is probate property or debts which cannot be paid from probate property, the personal representative(s) named in the will probably need to see an attorney to start the legal process of administration (probate). A family member, heir or creditor may take responsibility for probate if there is no will or if the personal representatives (and alternates) fail to act,

7. Focus on Bills With Time-Related Fees or Interest
Creditors understand that a death will mean a delay in payment or, as the case may be, a write-off. If a survivor or trustee has access to funds, then he or she should start dealing with bills that assess fees or interest for delayed payment. If no funds are available, or if funds are inadequate, it may be necessary to make arrangements for critical services (e.g., heat, light and phone).

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