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What do You do When Someone Dies?

What do You do When Someone Dies?

by, November 18th, 2011

When a family member dies, there’s work to do. But thinking through what tasks must be done, by whom and when, can be all but impossible. Keep this guide handy. More of us are facing these tasks as our parents age and die.

Some of us are helped by parents who are thoughtful and organized, while others must deal with unexpected deaths or loved ones who leave financial chaos behind. Even people who keep fairly good records can leave challenges for their survivors.

Here are the things you’ll need to do right away, and others you should tackle in the months to come. Although I’m referring specifically to the death of a parent, this action list should come in handy with the death of any relative or close friend.

First things first: The most immediate tasks when someone dies are to make the final arrangements and notify others of the death. If your parent left specific funeral and burial instructions, with a list of people to be notified, your job is that much easier. If not, you’ll need to consult with other family members and look for address books that can help you with your task.

Most people contact a funeral home for help with arrangements. If your parent was religious, call the pastor, priest, rabbi or other religious leader for guidance. It’s also traditional to put together an obituary to run in the local paper. The funeral director usually can help with this task, or you can call the newspaper and ask about its procedures for running obits.

Essential documents: This is a good time to order several copies of the death certificate so that you have these essential documents on hand when you later apply for any life insurance benefits or financial accounts. Again, funeral directors typically can handle this task for you, or you can contact the health department in the county where your parent lived. How many certificates you need depends on how complex your parent’s finances were and what estate planning was done before death.

Taking care of business: Your parent probably was receiving income from somewhere — an employer, a pension, the Social Security Administration, or perhaps all three. Legally, they need to be told of the death. If your parent was employed, or receiving a pension, you should notify the company’s human-resources department within a few days of the death. This also will start the process of collecting any life insurance, accrued vacation pay or other benefits the employer may owe the family.

If your parent received Social Security checks, you’ll want to inform the Social Security Administration promptly. The administration is wary of fraud, and you could be in for a nasty battle if checks are issued after your parent’s death.

If your parent was receiving other government or health services, such as Medicaid or hospice care, these agencies should be notified as well.

Locate important papers and professionals: You’ll need to track personal documents including wills, trusts, insurance policies, investment accounts, business and partnership arrangements, credit-card statements and other evidence of assets and liabilities. Unless your parent had a large or complicated estate, you probably can take your time pulling this information together. However, if your parent owned a business or was in the midst of a complicated transaction — selling a home, for example, or setting up an estate-planning trust — you may need to work more quickly. If your parent had financial advisers — accountants, attorneys, real estate agents, insurance agents — it’s smart to contact them and ask if any matters need to be taken care of immediately.

Who’s in charge here? Usually, one person supervises the tasks of settling an estate. If your parent had a will or a trust, it should specify who is to serve as the executor or personal representative (or, in the case of a living trust, the successor trustee). The person named is responsible for making sure creditors are paid, assets are distributed and estate tax returns are filed. This is usually the person who will investigate what benefits or insurance proceeds, if any, are owed to the heirs.

If your parent died without a will or trust, the laws of your state typically indicate who’s in charge: usually a surviving spouse, if there is one or an adult child or parent. A court hearing will be held to appoint someone, and there could be a battle if more than one person wants the role. That’s why it’s so important to have a will or trust, since such court proceedings are a time-consuming and unnecessary expense.

If you are the person selected and don’t feel up to the task, you can always decline. But remember that you are allowed to hire professional help for the work ahead — and that if you proceed, you probably should.

Get some help: Questions will come with even the simplest estate, Long said, so it’s smart to hire someone who understands the process and who can give you good advice. An accountant may be all you need for a smaller estate, although you’ll probably also require an attorney if your parents’ assets were worth $500,000 or more.

An accountant, for example, can help put together the financial snapshot of assets and liabilities that’s needed when settling an estate and offer advice about the tax consequences of transferring assets. An attorney is all but required if your parent’s estate was large enough to incur taxes (this year that means estates worth $2 million or more) or if your parent left a lot of debt. Deciding which creditors should be paid, and when, can be one of the trickier parts of settling an estate.

What about your own plans? There’s nothing quite like a death in the family to make you think about your own mortality. Instead of wallowing, however, you could turn these thoughts into positive action by making your own arrangements.