A Loved One Has Died, What Should I Do?

Whether it be a parent, grandparent, or otherwise, when a loved one dies, creating a “to do” list is not the first thing often on a grieving family member’s mind.  However, we do live in a check it off the list, “get it done” type of world and so I often have family members call me the day of or day after the death of a loved one asking for counsel.  I get questions such as “should we go to the courthouse?”, “when is the reading of the Will?” and “should I pay [enter outstanding bill here]?”. 

All of these are great questions and dealing with an estate of a loved one is not something that you ideally have to deal with too often, and for many folks it’s a first-time experience.  One of the common questions can be addressed for all cases, the “reading of the Will” is not a modern-day practice and is primarily a myth derived from movies and TV.  In a far-gone era, such practice may have existed due to low literacy rates and lack of a reliable postal infrastructure.   

The truth is, that while it may be important to have a family meeting and begin collecting and organizing information, in many cases, there is not an urgent need to hightail it to the courthouse or attorney’s office.  For small estates in North Carolina administered by affidavit, which are those not containing real estate and consisting of less than $20,000 in personal property, the initial filing will not be accepted until 30 days after the date of death.  Additionally, there is actually a benefit, in some cases, where the family member has access to the decedent’s residence, in letting “the dust settle” so to speak and collecting important mail such as bills, refund checks and bank statements, the death certificate (can be available anywhere from a few days to a few weeks after the death) and other documents not immediately available but which are important to determining the most efficient course of action in administering the estate. 

That said, peace of mind is important and there are many cases where, even if not a legal necessity, it is important for the family to touch base with an estate attorney within days of the date of death.  My door is always open to a family who needs early guidance.  One important thing to note, however, is that when a decedent has a Last Will and Testament, it is only appropriate for an attorney who intends to represent the estate to speak with the family member named as the Executor in the purported Last Will.  Whoever that may be may wish to have other family members present at the conference, but whether or not that is advisable, should be a private discussion for the purported Executor and the attorney to have in advance.

If you have lost a loved one and have been named as an Executor in their Last Will, whether you wish to take a few weeks to gather documents or consult counsel immediately will be in your discretion.  I will end this blog with the general advice I provide to executors between the date of death and the time they choose to meet at my office. 

Before you meet with an attorney, all you should do, if you wish to do anything at all, is notify certain relevant parties of your loved one’s death.  Examples of relevant parties include Social Security (if the decedent was receiving social security), health care insurers, retirement plans and life insurance companies.  In most cases, the funeral home director will notify Social Security by submitting a statement of death to Social Security, but you should confirm with the funeral home that this was, indeed, done.  Notification of death is especially important when related to any automatic deposits or drafts from your loved one’s checking account.  For example, most pension payments terminate at death and if the relevant company is not aware of the death and continues to make auto deposits into the account of the deceased, the estate could owe a large overpayment which may cause unnecessary accounting and record keeping for the Executor.  I typically do not recommend notifying mortgage lenders or other potential creditors of the decedent until speaking with an attorney. 

When notifying life insurance companies or retirement plans, you may be asked to provide the decedent’s personal information (i.e. date of death, date of birth, social security number, address, etc.).  You should request that the life insurance company or retirement plan send a death claim packet to the beneficiary of record.  They will likely give you no other information about the policy or account unless you are the beneficiary.

You may also proceed with working with the funeral home on claiming any insurance proceeds which are needed to cover the funeral expenses. Other than funeral expenses which are covered by a preneed funeral contract or life insurance proceeds, you should pay no other bills until meeting with an attorney.  In certain cases, I may advise clients to continue paying expenses related to real property the decedent owned such as utilities and a mortgage payment, if applicable.  If the decedent had a mortgage, it is typically more urgent to meet with an attorney upon the death of a loved one. 

There is a statutory hierarchy outlined in Chapter 28A of the North Carolina General Statutes for payment of a decedent’s final expenses so paying the decedent’s bills or debts prior to consulting with counsel could potentially cause a colossal issue, and if you personally advance the funds, you may not be entitled to reimbursement from the estate. 

Executors should collect as much of the following documentation as possible but should not delay their appointment if any of the information is unavailable: Death certificate; decedent’s original Will unless the attorney retained the original when it was signed; current statements for all financial accounts in the decedent’s name showing the balance of the account on the date of death as well as the current balance and a copy of each account’s signature card (obtained from the bank); original titles of any car, trailer, boat, moped or mobile home (tagged or untagged) and the most recent combined DMV registration and/or tax bill for each; life insurance policies and any recent claim forms or correspondence received about insurance, retirement accounts or investments; copy of the Marriage Certificate if there is a surviving spouse; copy of the funeral bill or if funeral bill has been paid, a copy of the invoice showing a zero balance; current balances of any bills or debts in the decedent’s name; any uncashed checks payable to the decedent or the “estate of” the decedent; and a list of all known beneficiaries with their current mailing address and telephone number.

If you have lost a loved one and need guidance, please call our offices. 

Estate Planning & Admin