A Family Member Died, Now What? How to Begin Winding up a Relative’s Legal Affairs

Estate Planning Practice Group

By Estate Planning Practice Group

The death of a loved one is never easy and will likely be an emotional time for you, your children, family, and friends. You may have a lot of things running through your head about what needs to be done, when, and how. To assist you through this difficult time, here’s an outline (in no particular order) of legal considerations necessary to begin the process of winding up your relative’s affairs. You can pursue these in order or at the same time. If it makes you more comfortable, you can skip ahead and contact an attorney at the outset. Finally, it is important to communicate with other family members so these efforts aren’t duplicated.

Order Death Certificates

One of the first things to do is obtain a certified death certificate of your relative and specifically multiple certified copies of the death certificate. Your relative’s financial and service providers, debt holders, the court, contracting parties, and many other institutions may need to see a death certificate to verify your relative’s death before they will begin their internal processes of closing your relative’s accounts. While some institutions will accept copies, many require a certified death certificate, which you or your attorney can get from your county vital records office. Depending on the office, it may take some time to process your requests, so performing this step sooner rather than later is recommended. Also, please note that death certificates are often ordered by the funeral home at the time the service is planned.

Gather Your Relative’s Estate-Planning Documents

If your relative had a will, trust, or any other estate-planning documents designed to transfer any property upon death, gather those documents together. For items with specific titles, e.g. the relative’s home, vehicles, and financial accounts, check for beneficiary or transfer on death provisions. Ideally, you will locate original copies of your relative’s estate planning documents. If you just have copies, consider whether another relative has the original document or where it might be located. If the documents are located in a bank safe deposit box, a bank officer may enter the box for the sole purpose of retrieving and filing a last will and testament.

Take a Preliminary Accounting

When you are gathering your relative’s estate planning documents, you will want to start taking a preliminary accounting of your relative’s assets. Here is a general checklist of information and documents to gather in preparation for your meeting with your attorney. In general, take note of the following:

  • Where did your relative have bank, brokerage, and retirement accounts?
  • What vehicles and real property did your relative own?
  • Did your relative have an insurance policy?
  • Did your relative have extraordinary, valuable items of personal property such as art or jewelry? A helpful way to identify those specific items of valuable personal property is to review your relative’s insurance policy for specifically scheduled (insured) items.
  • Did your relative have outstanding debts?

Please note though that you will want to meet with an attorney prior to notifying account holders or creditors of the death.

Secure Your Relative’s Pets and Belongings

If your relative had a pet, make temporary arrangements for where that pet will go and/or who will be taking care of it. As to your relative’s home, make sure all doors and windows are locked, any security system is activated, and valuable items of personal property are secured. It can be a chaotic time after someone’s death and it is vital that items be accounted for properly.

Note: When securing property, pay special attention to co-ownership, joint tenancy, and/or transfer on death situations which may vest immediate ownership rights in that co-owner, joint tenant, or a third party. Any temporary security arrangements should not deprive a co-owner, joint tenant, or third party from their lawful right to your relative’s property. Your attorney will help identify the best course of action in these situations.

Contact an Attorney

Many people take this step first – which is completely fine. An experienced probate attorney can help you navigate the steps above as well as those to come. The attorney will be able to assist with the following:

  • Evaluating the documents and information you’ve gathered;
  • Determining whether opening a full or small estate with the court is necessary and/or advisable;
  • Making requisite notifications and reports to your relative’s financial institutions, debt holders, the government, and others; and
  • Explaining what it means if you are named trustee or personal representative in your relative’s estate planning documents, as well as the requirements to serve in that role and best accounting and distribution practices to avoid trouble down the line.

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