What to do When a Loved One Dies
-by Avery Day, Partner
The loss of a loved one is always a difficult time due to the emotional impact. It can also be a stressful time for those settling the affairs of the recently departed. For many, they have never been responsible for dealing with these matters, and this is uncharted territory. The following is a list of 16 things you should consider when you lose a loved one. This is by no means an exhaustive list, as everyone’s circumstances are unique. This is also a Maine-centric list and all items may not apply in other jurisdictions.
- Notify family and close friends as well as any employers.
- If there are are pets at home or dependents, arrange for their care.
- Make funeral arrangements, keeping in mind that the Will or Advance Health Care Directive may contain instructions regarding custody of the body, other post-mortem decisions, and service arrangements. Also keep in mind that there may be a pre-paid funeral plan in place.
- Prepare an obituary for publication in local news outlets.
- Secure the loved one’s home by removing food that will spoil, taking care of plants, and picking up mail and newspapers. Depending on the circumstances, some people place lights on timers or take other steps to make the home appear that it is still lived in.
- Obtain certified copies of the Death Certificate. This can often be done in person, through the mail, or even online. You will likely need at least five certified copies for various purposes, including filing for probate, dealing with any financial institutions, and dealing with insurance companies.
- Locate the original Will. Likely places to locate these documents include safe deposit boxes (these boxes can be opened to search for Wills), safe at home, desk drawers, file cabinets, or the office of the attorney who drafted the Will.
- Locate other documents that will help identify what assets are in the estate. This can include previous years’ tax returns (particularly the schedules filed with these returns), checkbooks/registers of checking transactions, deeds and other property records, insurance documents, and statements from financial institutions.
- Locate professionals with knowledge of your loved one’s affairs, including their attorney, accountant, and financial advisor. These professionals may have a detailed understanding of the assets in the estate and you may end up working with them to probate the estate and to pay taxes due the federal and state governments.
- Have mail forwarded to whomever is responsible for your loved one’s bills.
- Cancel any unnecessary utilities/services to the home. While a home should be heated to maintain its value, you can likely cancel services like the phone, cable, and internet.
- If the home has an outstanding mortgage, you should notify the mortgage provider. If your loved one was a renter, notify the landlord and make arrangements to move out to reduce rental expenses.
- Notify various financial institutions of the death, including credit card companies, which will prevent fraudulent charges. This also includes banks, where you will eventually close out accounts (try to understand if any accounts are automatically paying bills before closing out these accounts). You will also want to notify any pension providers, as there may be death benefits due to beneficiaries, and life insurance companies, as there may also be life insurance benefits due. Other insurances, such as health insurance, can be canceled.
- If there are any vehicles titled to the departed, you will also need to contact the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles to retitle these vehicles.
- Contact the Social Security Administration to notify the Administration of the death, which may result in benefits being transferred to certain family members.
- Talk with an attorney who practices probate administration. Not all estates need to or should go through the probate process, depending on the size of the estate and how assets are held. An attorney, however, can advise those responsible for administering an estate as to their duties, what should be done to maximize the value of the estate, and how to avoid costly mistakes in administration.
When preparing to meet with an attorney to discuss probate administration, there are some documents you should bring and some information you should be prepared to discuss. These include the following:
- The original Will (if there is a Will), though a copy will suffice for the initial meeting, if the original cannot be located. Eventually, however, the original must be filed with Probate Court.
- The death certificate, as this is required by the Probate Court when filing for probate, and much of the information found on the death certificate will also need to be provided when completing the application to appoint a Personal Representative and probate a Will.
- Asset information, as much as is available. It is not unusual for the person in charge of administering an estate (i.e., the Personal Representative, sometimes called the “Executor”) to not have a detailed understanding of the assets of the recently deceased. An understanding of the assets in the estate will grow over a few months. In the meantime, gather as much information as possible about real estate, checking accounts, savings accounts, retirement accounts, and personal property of value, such as vehicles, antiques, or jewelry. This includes having an understanding of assets that may pass outside of probate, such as life insurance benefits, retirement accounts with named beneficiaries, trust assets, and jointly titled property. Asset information is needed to initiate the probate process, but it will also shape the approach to resolving an estate. Probate may be avoided altogether depending on the amount of assets and how they are held.
- Liability information, as much as is available. Like assets, the deceased’s debts may not be known in great detail initially. The more information available, however, the better, with a focus on determining if there are any outstanding mortgages, funeral expenses, and other outstanding obligations like credit card bills, medical bills, or MaineCare claims.
- Family information. In order to initiate probate, an attorney will also need to understand the family tree to determine who the heirs are under Maine law. Once those heirs are determined, it will be necessary to know their addresses and, for those under the age of 18, their dates of birth.
To learn more about the probate process in Maine, and how the attorneys of Stevens & Day LLP work with clients to settle these affairs, visit our probate practice page.