What To Do When a Relative Passes Away

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When my father died a few years ago my mother was overwhelmed by the many details that needed to be attended to during such an emotional time. My Mom was fortunate in that she and my Dad were jointly involved in their financial matters. The following is a checklist I created as a reminder of some of the steps you need to cover when you find yourself in this situation:

Immediately – There are tasks that family members will need to take care of very soon after a relative’s death.

  • Arrange the funeral or memorial service.
  • Did the deceased pre-plan or pre-pay for a funeral? My Dad had a prepaid
    arrangement with a crematory. There was a checklist provided along with
    contact information to follow at death.
  • Submit an obituary to the decedent’s local paper(s). You may want to include
    a charitable organization for donations if that is preferred over flowers. Don’t
    rely on the obituary to inform important friends and family members. You
    should plan to call them and ask them to help contact others.
  • Check with the cemetery to see if the deceased paid for a plot and/or burial
    insurance. My Dad was a veteran. Veterans, service members, and their
    dependents can be buried in a national cemetery for free. If a veteran is
    buried elsewhere and was entitled to receive VA disability payments up to the
    time of death, his or her estate can receive an allowance toward burial and
    funeral expenses.
  • Keep a list of everyone who sends donations, flowers, and/or cards so
    acknowledgements can be sent.
  • Secure the decedent’s tangible property. The executor may need to have
    these items appraised. Personal property is often listed specifically in the will
    as a bequest to particular family members.


Post funeral – There are some issues that have to be dealt with within legal time
periods. Here are some of the initial steps that may need to be taken.

  • Find out if there is a will and who was appointed executor.
  • Is there a safe deposit box? The executor will need to determine the
    contents of the decedent’s safe deposit box.
  • The executor should arrange a meeting with the attorney to review the steps
    necessary to administer the decedent’s estate. Documents you should bring

    • death certificates (You can get these from the funeral director)
    • a copy of the decedent’s birth certificate (and the marriage license if
      the deceased is your spouse)
    • financial statements, including those from banks, brokerage houses,
      and insurance agencies
    • the decedent’s Social Security number
    • Veterans Affairs identification number, if applicable
  • Notify the decedent’s creditors. Close any credit card accounts.
  • The estate, not surviving family members, is responsible for any debts of the
    decedent. Do not pay off their debts yourself. Doing so only increases the
    net value of the estate, which may mean higher inheritance taxes.
  • The executor distributes the property to heirs. Once the executor
    understands the assets and liabilities of the estate, he or she can distribute
    most of the assets. A reserve will be held for the final costs of closing out
    the estate.
  • The executor must file an account with the probate court listing any
    income to the estate since the date of death and all expenses and estate
    distributions. The executor can distribute whatever is left in the reserve once
    the court approves the final account.
  • Change the title on any property (including real estate and automobiles)
    owned by the deceased.
  • Contact financial institutions to determine what information they need to
    change the registration on any accounts in the decedent’s name.
  • If you are the spouse of the deceased, review your own estate plan, including
    insurance policies, legal documents, investment plans, etc., and revise as
  • File a federal estate tax return within nine months of the death if the estate’s
    value exceeds the estate tax exemption for the year of death.
  • Contact the employee benefits department of the decedent’s employer to
    determine what death benefits may be payable and to whom.
  • Determine how to arrange for any income you may be getting from the
    decedent’s retirement plan benefits, union survivor benefits, Social Security,
    Veterans’ benefits, and life insurance policies.
  • If the decedent was receiving Social Security benefits, the Social Security
    Administration must be notified promptly.
  • Veterans’ benefits to a spouse and heirs may include pension payments and
    financial aid for education costs. Call the Department of Veterans Affairs at
    1-800-827-1000 to find the office nearest you.
  • Insurance benefits – determine who are the beneficiaries and contact the
    insurance company or agent to obtain the death claim forms needed.
  • Retirement plan and pension benefits – beneficiaries should contact the
    employee benefits department of the company that sponsors the plan to
    determine what payment options are available and the paperwork required to submit a claim.

Settling an estate can sometimes be a lengthy and frustrating process. However, probate can be avoided completely in many instances. My parents held most of their assets jointly and named each other as beneficiaries. Administrative expenses were minimal. This did not minimize the grief and stress my Mom went through but she could take comfort knowing she would be OK financially.

Rick’s Insights

    • Spouses should make sure each other is aware of any arrangements made in the event of death and where to find important documents.
    • The executor becomes the personal representative of the deceased and has complete authority to act on their behalf.
    • Avoid making any extraordinary changes in your life soon after the loss of a loved one. Making important decisions immediately could mean having regrets later.

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