Legal Responsibilities After the Death of a Family Member

Legal Checklist Death Family Member

Losing a loved one is an incredibly emotionally challenging time. In the days and weeks that follow, you will feel devastated, lost, and confused.

But what is often overlooked during this time is the large number of legal obligations that family members must begin to fulfill within days of a family member’s death. If you are anticipating that a family member is going to die soon, or you simply want to be prepared for any possibility, we have prepared this checklist of important legal steps you need to take on behalf of a loved one.

We recommend that you print this list out and store with any important legal documents that you have. If you are not the trustee or executor, give this list to them, and be sure to provide any support or assistance you can in fulfilling the obligations outlined below.

Death and Disposition

  • If death occurs at the decedent’s or a family member’s home, contact police or your local coroner’s office. (If they pass in a hospital or under hospice care, attending staff will usually handle this.) Be advised that if you do not have a DNR in hand, paramedics may be dispatched to perform emergency procedures.
  • Contact a local mortuary to arrange transport of the body.
  • Contact all close family and friends, especially anyone with legal powers such as trustees, executors, power of attorney, conservators, etc. It may be advisable to appoint a few key people to handle the process of reaching out to family.
  • If the decedent had dependents, consult with those with legal powers and access to the decedent’s legal documents to determine how they should be cared for.
  • Determine whether your family member had any final instructions regarding disposition of their body, such as a request to be cremated, or a prepaid burial plan. These instructions may be with other legal documents and files in the home, or in a safe deposit box.
  • Once any instructions are in hand, go to the mortuary and make arrangements for the funeral and burial.

Managing the Decedent’s Immediate Concerns

  • Appoint one or more people to handle the collection of mail and to answer the phone (or to respond to calls left on an answering machine or in voicemail).
  • Choose someone to collect the mail and put it in a safe place. The executor or trustee should handle the process of opening and responding to mail.
  • Determine who should take care of the loved one’s pets.
  • Order death certificates. Usually, the funeral home can help you with this. You will need copies for a myriad of circumstances—everything from bill collectors to life insurance—so order a dozen or more. It’s better to have too many than too few.
  • Contact the Social Security Administration and any pension services. Neglecting to contact them may result in having to repay any benefits that were paid out after death.
  • Contact service providers and utilities, such as phone companies, internet providers, and any subscription-based services.

Identifying Key Legal Documents

The person or persons acting as the decedent’s executors or trustees should ensure that they have copies of important legal documents, including:

  • Trusts and/or wills
  • Birth and death certificates
  • Tax documents
  • Marriage and divorce documents
  • Vehicle and property titles
  • Leases
  • Life insurance policies
  • Pension benefit documentation
  • Safe deposit box keys
  • Bank statements
  • Bills
  • Health insurance documents

Will and Trust Administration

  • If the decedent had a will, an executor will be named in the will that will be responsible for carrying it out. The executor will need to take the will to the local city or county probate court.
  • If the decent had a trust, the trustee (often the same person responsible for executing the will) will need to begin the process of administering the trust.
  • Begin an inventory of the decedent’s assets, as well as debts and bills that need to be paid. Determine if the decedent had any stocks, bonds, or other such assets.
  • If the decedent owned a business, documentation relating to the ownership and administration of the business needs to be located.
  • Be wary of people who call or show up in-person claiming that they are owed money by the decedent. There are proper legal routes for securing the payment of debts. Also, ensure that the home is watched, as burglars sometimes target the homes of the recently deceased.

At this point, it’s highly advisable to hire a trust or probate attorney. We can say from personal experience that the process of handling a loved one’s final legal obligations can be complex and drawn out. Having experienced legal representation can help ensure that no details are overlooked or costly mistakes made.

This checklist is merely meant to be an overview of the most pertinent obligations to keep in mind. To create a fully inclusive list would require writing a book.

If you need assistance with administering the will or trust of a loved one, please feel free to call us at 916-400-4516, or use our contact form to send us a message.