The Legal Obligations after a Family Member Dies

In recent weeks, it’s been my sad misfortune to lose two close relatives in my family. After the initial shock of the loss of each beloved family member, I have been swamped with questions from other family members and friends about what to do (in terms of legal obligations) when a loss like this occurs.

My response? It’s always a good idea to reach out to an attorney to get helpful advice on the right actions to take.

As we all know, the death of a loved one is an extremely stressful experience, charged with a variety of emotions. But if you’re in some way responsible for what this person has left behind, you must be able to promptly take a step back and figure out—Where do we go from here?

While it’s not always clear who should take charge in these situations, the “default person” is usually a deceased person’s spouse or another close family member. This can be altered if an estate plan designates some other individual.

Here are some essential things that need to happen:

Make arrangements to obtain your loved one’s death certificate. Numerous governmental and financial entities will likely require proof of death. That’s why I suggest obtaining multiple (at least 6-8) certified copies of the death certificate. Hospital staff or funeral home representatives can assist in getting these documents.

Determine if the deceased left behind a will and/or trust. These documents will help guide you through the legal process required to properly handle the deceased person’s estate. In California, a proper living trust will generally allow you accomplish this without court involvement, whereas if there is only a will or if the deceased failed to leave behind any estate planning documents, you may have to open probate, a court procedure for obtaining orders related to the administration of the estate.

Locate advanced mans health healthcare directive. Did the deceased person have an advanced healthcare directive or any other document identifying his or her wishes regarding organ donation and burial instructions? This can help determine what to do with their remains.

In the event of a death, other small but important tasks include:

  •  Notifying the deceased’s employer, Social Security Administration, any government agency benefits programs (such as Veterans Affairs)
  • Contacting creditors (a person’s debt is still enforceable after his or her death)
  • Locating insurance policies, claims forms, etc.
  • Caring for a pet
  • Collecting mail
  • Cancelling newspaper and magazine subscriptions
  • Disposing of clothing and personal items

As you can see, your death can create a great deal of work for those you leave behind. A proper estate plan will definitely relieve your loved ones of what can be an overwhelming burden to wrap up your affairs. In addition to the proper documents (e.g. trust, will, power of attorney, advance healthcare directive, etc.), I also advise people to create two lists to help their survivors know what to do following their death:

Contact list. This includes a set of addresses (with all pertinent contact information) for those people named in any of the documents as well as anyone who should be contacted and notified of your death.

Informal inventory. With a comprehensive listing of all of your assets, survivors can avoid an emotionally-draining and time-consuming “scavenger hunt” through your possessions. The inventory tells them what they need to know about your estate.

This is a broad description of what should take place after a loved one’s death, but it is by no means comprehensive. If you’ve recently suffered a loss and feel bewildered by all the obligations thrust upon you, contact an attorney as soon as possible. This attorney can help you navigate the emotional journey that lies ahead.