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When a Loved One Dies: Eight Important Steps

A parent, your spouse, or a close friend or relative has passed away. If you have any responsibility for the decedent’s affairs, one of the first questions that will enter your mind is, "What do I do now?"

Few individuals can answer that question, especially during a time of mourning. The eight steps that follow may help you sort through the confusing procedures involving funeral, probate, taxes, insurance and other vital matters.

These general suggestions are not intended to cover every eventuality; rather, they are meant to help you identify important issues that surviving family members and friends often encounter.

Some of the steps are more complicated than most individuals are willing or able to undertake, and an experienced probate attorney can efficiently assume the various responsibilities which arise out of a person’s death.

With very few exceptions, none of the steps outlined below requires immediate action. Tend first to your emotional needs, and then, when you are ready, you can start putting the decedent’s affairs in order. (See related article, "What Are the Duties of a Personal Representative?")

1. Contact the Funeral Director.

An experienced funeral director can provide a variety of helpful services beyond the obvious ones, including making transportation arrangements, coordinating with other funeral directors (if, for example, the burial is to be in another city or state), notifying government agencies, preparing obituary notices, etc.

2. Inspect the Decedent's Safe Deposit Boxes.

Arizona law allows a joint owner of a safe deposit box, a surviving spouse, or the named personal representative of the decedent to open the decedent’s safe deposit box.
In estates where there is a possibility of disputes among family members, it would be wise to have either bank personnel or a disinterested third party present when the box is opened. A written inventory should be prepared at that time to document the contents of the box.

3. Gather All Important Documents.

The decedent’s financial and other records must be gathered for the purposes of probating the estate and preparing the decedent’s and the estate’s income tax returns.
In searching for these and other important documents, check safe deposit boxes, desk drawers (both at work and at home), briefcases, lockers, safes, etc. Also, keep a careful eye on the decedent’s mail. Never throw out official-looking documents.
The following list includes most documents and pieces of information that are commonly considered important:

  • Address books

  • Automobile titles

  • Bank statements

  • Business records (if self-employed)

  • Check register (current year)

  • Contracts

  • Funeral instructions

  • Life insurance policies and annuities

  • Notes payable

  • Notes receivable

  • Partnership agreements

  • Past employment information

  • Pension information

  • Real property deeds

  • Retirement account statements

  • Securities statements

  • Stock certificates

  • Tax preparer's or accountant's name and address

  • Tax return source documents (current year)

  • Tax returns (last three years)

  • Trust agreement

  • Unpaid bills

  • Will

4. Notify the Decedent's Attorney.

If the decedent had a will or owned property outside of a trust or joint tenancy arrangement, his or her estate will probably be subject to the legal proceeding known as "probate." Through probate, claims against the estate are settled, and the decedent’s remaining property is distributed in accordance with the instructions contained in his or her will, all under the supervision of the probate court.
Though it is possible to handle a probate without the assistance of an attorney, people who are not familiar with the process will find it frustrating and very difficult. Even when the estate does not utilize the services of an attorney, you should at least contact the attorney who prepared the decedent’s will, if for no other reason than to review any documents that the attorney may have in the decedent’s file.

5. Contact Social Security.

If the decedent has paid into Social Security and accumulated the minimum number of work credits, survivor benefits can be paid to certain family members. These include widows, widowers, children, dependent parents and, in some cases, surviving divorced spouses.
If you were not receiving Social Security benefits when the decedent passed away, you should apply promptly. You can apply online, by phone (800-772-1213) or at any Social Security office.
If you were already receiving Social Security benefits on your spouse’s record when he or she died, report the death to Social Security and they will change your payments to survivor benefits.
If you are already receiving Social Security benefits on your own record, you’ll need to complete an application to receive survivor’s benefits. A copy of your spouse’s death certificate will be required.

6. If the Decedent Was a Veteran, Contact the Veterans Administration.

Veterans’ pension and disability payments cease at death; amounts received after death must be returned to the Veterans Administration (VA). However, the surviving spouse may be eligible to receive a portion of those benefits. For additional information, contact the VA online or by phone at the Phoenix office (800-827-1000).

7. Contact Insurance Companies.

You will need to contact each insurance company that insured the decedent’s life or provided endowment or annuity benefits to the decedent. Each company will have its own requirements for payment of death benefits, although all will require a certified copy of the death certificate. Some may also require you to submit the original policy to them before they will pay the death benefit, while others will instruct you to destroy the policy after the death benefit is paid.
Finally, if the decedent was named as the beneficiary of any policies that you own, you will need to contact those companies and request a "change of beneficiary" form.

8. Additional Companies to Contact.

Contact all banks, credit unions, brokerage companies or other companies where the decedent had accounts, investments or any other financial interest. Each will have certain requirements for collecting the funds owned by the decedent.
In Arizona, if the decedent owned over $75,000 in gross personal property or $100,000 in net real property at the time of his or her death (per 2013 legislation), it may be necessary to file a probate in order to collect amounts owned by the decedent. If there is any question about the necessity of filing a probate, you should contact an attorney.
If the decedent was receiving retirement or pension benefits from a private company, you will need to contact the company providing those benefits. If the decedent was a union member, there may be death benefits available through the union.
If the decedent was a beneficiary of a trust or an heir of an estate, you should notify the trustee or personal representative, respectively, of the death.
Other Considerations

  • The State of Arizona has a widow’s and widower’s tax exemption for real property. Your attorney can explain how that might apply to your situation.

  • If the decedent was named in your will as an heir or as your personal representative, your will should be updated.

  • Deeds, titles, etc., may need to be changed depending on whether ownership was as joint tenants, tenants in common or community property.

  • Change of address forms may need to be sent to creditors, utility companies, etc.

  • Federal and state estate taxes may be due. Federal estate tax returns must be filed if the gross estate is $11.2 million or more (for 2018); the same is true for Arizona estate tax returns. If the decedent lived in or owned property in another state, the laws of that state will also need to be considered.

If you have a question on this topic that can be answered in a brief conversation, call us (480-985-4445) for a free 5-minute phone call with a Taylor Skinner attorney.

Michael Kleinman