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The First 10 Steps to Take After the Death of a Loved One: A Guide to Estates and Probate

Updated: Apr 18, 2023


Losing a loved one is an emotionally difficult time, and dealing with the legal and financial aspects of their passing can feel overwhelming. If you're responsible for settling your loved one's estate (for example if you are named the executor or if you have been appointed administrator of the estate), here are the first ten steps you should take:


1. Retain an attorney


This is likely the most important step on this list, and can (frankly) make an otherwise difficult experience a lot easier on you and your family. Retaining an experienced estate planning attorney can help make the process of settling your loved one's estate much easier. An attorney can help you navigate the legal requirements and ensure that you're fulfilling your loved one's wishes. Dealing with the passing of a loved one can be difficult and emotions can run high. The thought of having to handle legal affairs can be overwhelming. That's where an experienced estate planning attorney comes in. Retaining an attorney can provide you with peace of mind during a challenging time.


An attorney can help guide you through the complex legal process of settling an estate, including probate, taxes, and distribution of assets (pretty much tackling the rest of this list for and with you). They can also help ensure that your loved one's wishes are carried out in accordance with their will or trust.


When choosing an attorney, it's essential to find someone who specializes in estate planning and has experience handling similar cases. Look for an attorney who is responsive to your needs, provides clear communication, and offers compassionate support.


At our law firm, we understand the difficulty of handling an estate after the loss of a loved one. Our experienced attorneys have helped many families through this process and are dedicated to providing compassionate and personalized service to each of our clients. Contact us today to discuss your needs and how we can assist you in settling your loved one's estate.


If you contact our offices, you can rest assured that we will help you.


2. Notify family members and close friends


The first step after a loved one's passing is to notify family members and close friends of the death. This can be a difficult task, but it's important to inform those who need to know as soon as possible.


Notifying family members and close friends is a crucial step after the passing of a loved one. It's understandable that this can be an emotionally challenging task, but it's essential to inform those who need to know as soon as possible.


The notification process should begin with immediate family members, such as the deceased's spouse, children, and siblings. Next, you can move on to notifying extended family members, such as aunts, uncles, and cousins. It's also important to notify close friends, employers, and co-workers of the deceased.


When making the notifications, it's important to be clear and concise in your message. You can simply state that the person has passed away and provide any relevant details, such as the date and time of the funeral or memorial service. It's also helpful to offer condolences and support to those who are grieving.


If you are not sure how to reach out to family members or close friends, consider reaching out to the executor of the estate or a trusted friend or family member for guidance. They can provide support and assistance in making the notifications.


Overall, notifying family members and close friends after the passing of a loved one is a crucial step in the grieving process. It allows those who need to know to begin the process of mourning and making arrangements.


3. Obtain a death certificate: Obtain a death certificate


You'll need to obtain a certified copy of the death certificate from the local health department or county recorder's office. You'll need this document to prove your loved one's death and settle their affairs.


Getting a certified copy of the death certificate is an essential step in the process of settling your loved one's affairs. This document serves as legal proof of the death and will be required for various purposes, such as closing bank accounts, claiming life insurance benefits, and transferring ownership of assets.


To obtain a certified copy of the death certificate, you will need to contact the local health department or county recorder's office in the jurisdiction where your loved one passed away. In some cases, the funeral home or hospital may assist in obtaining the death certificate. You will need to provide certain information, such as the deceased person's full name, date of birth, and date of death, as well as your relationship to the deceased.


It's important to obtain multiple copies of the death certificate, as you may need to provide them to various institutions and organizations. The number of copies required may vary depending on the circumstances, but it's generally recommended to obtain at least 10-15 copies.


Keep in mind that there may be a fee associated with obtaining certified copies of the death certificate. The cost and processing time may vary depending on the jurisdiction and the number of copies requested.


It's essential to obtain the death certificate as soon as possible to avoid any delays in settling your loved one's affairs. This document is required for many important tasks, and obtaining it should be a top priority after a loved one's passing.


4. Secure the property of the decedent


Make sure the property of the deceased is secure, especially if it will be vacant for a while. This includes locking the doors and windows, and taking valuables to a secure location.


After the passing of a loved one, securing their property is essential to prevent theft or damage (or worse - we have had clients whose family member’s property is retitled in a scam artist’s name!). If the property is going to remain vacant for an extended period of time, taking extra measures to protect it is critical. Here are some steps you can take to secure the property:


  • Change the locks: If the property is a house, changing the locks is an important first step. This will ensure that only authorized individuals have access to the property.

  • Install a security system: Installing a security system is another way to keep the property safe. A security system can include cameras, motion detectors, and an alarm system. This will alert authorities if someone attempts to break in or if there is any unusual activity on the property.

  • Take valuables to a secure location: If there are valuable items in the property, such as jewelry, artwork, or important documents, it is advisable to take them to a secure location, such as a safety deposit box at a bank or a trusted friend or family member's home.

  • Notify neighbors: It is a good idea to let neighbors know that the property will be vacant for a period of time. This way, they can keep an eye on the property and report any suspicious activity to the authorities.


Taking these steps to secure the property will help give you peace of mind during a difficult time. By protecting the property of your loved one, you are ensuring that their legacy remains intact and their belongings are safe.


5. Find the will (and all other relevant estate planning documents)


If your loved one had a will, locate it as soon as possible. If you don't know where it is, check with their attorney or other trusted advisors.


Finding the will and all other relevant estate planning documents is a crucial step in settling your loved one's affairs after their passing. These documents provide important information about how your loved one wished to distribute their assets and handle other matters after their death. Here are some key points to keep in mind when searching for these documents:


  • Start with the will: The will is the most important estate planning document, as it outlines your loved one's wishes for distributing their assets and naming an executor to handle their affairs. If your loved one had an attorney, they may have a copy of the will. You can also check with your loved one's bank or financial institution, as they may have a safe deposit box where the will is stored.

  • Look for other relevant documents: In addition to the will, there may be other important estate planning documents that you need to locate. These may include trust agreements, bank statements, life insurance policies, digital asset information, final wishes or directives, burial instructions, and more.

  • Check with your loved one's attorney: If your loved one had an attorney, they may have drafted and stored all of their estate planning documents. Reach out to their attorney to see if they have any relevant documents on file.

  • Check physical and digital files: Search through your loved one's physical files, including any safe deposit boxes or other storage locations. You should also check their digital files, including any email accounts or online storage services they may have used.

  • Be organized and keep copies: As you locate and gather these documents, it's important to keep them organized and in a safe location. Make copies of all documents and keep them in a secure location, such as a safe or a fireproof box. You may also want to make digital copies and store them in a secure online storage service.


By taking the time to locate and gather all of the relevant estate planning documents, you can ensure that your loved one's wishes are carried out and their affairs are handled properly. This can help provide peace of mind during a difficult and emotional time.


6. Open a probate case


Probate is the legal process of administering the estate of a deceased person. The probate process involves identifying and gathering the assets of the deceased, paying any outstanding debts, and distributing the remaining assets to the beneficiaries. The probate process can be complicated and time-consuming, and it's important to have the guidance of an experienced attorney.


Your attorney can assist you in determining whether probate is necessary, and if so, they can help you file the appropriate paperwork to open the case. They can also help you identify and value the assets of the estate and work with creditors to settle any outstanding debts. Your attorney can help you navigate any legal disputes that may arise during the probate process and ensure that the assets are distributed according to the wishes of the deceased.


It's important to work with an attorney who has experience in probate and estate planning to ensure that the process runs smoothly and efficiently. They can help you avoid common pitfalls and mistakes that can prolong the process and result in unnecessary expenses. With the guidance of an attorney, you can focus on grieving your loss while your loved one's estate is being handled with care and attention to detail.


7. Notify creditors


Notify your loved one's creditors of their passing and provide them with a copy of the death certificate. It's important to notify your loved one's creditors of their passing to avoid any potential issues or complications down the line. Providing them with a copy of the death certificate will serve as proof of your loved one's passing and will allow the creditor to update their records accordingly. Your attorney can assist you in identifying and notifying the appropriate creditors, ensuring that you are fulfilling your legal obligations while also minimizing any potential financial liability for the estate. It's important to take care of this step as soon as possible to avoid any potential legal issues that may arise if creditors are not properly notified.


8. Notify government agencies


Notify governmental agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs of your loved one's death. It's essential to notify the relevant government agencies to ensure that any benefits or entitlements are appropriately handled. For example, if your loved one was receiving Social Security benefits, you'll need to notify the Social Security Administration promptly. The Department of Veterans Affairs should also be notified if your loved one was a veteran. These agencies can provide valuable information on survivor benefits and other resources that may be available to you. An attorney can help guide you through the process of notifying these agencies and ensure that you receive any benefits you're entitled to.


9. Inventory assets


Inventorying your loved one's assets and debts is a crucial step in the probate process. You'll need to create a comprehensive list of their assets, including real estate, bank accounts, retirement accounts, investments, vehicles, personal belongings, and other valuable items. You should also list any debts your loved one had, such as credit card balances, mortgages, and loans. Creating an inventory of assets and debts will help you determine the total value of the estate, which is necessary for tax purposes and for distributing the assets to the beneficiaries. It will also help you identify any potential issues that could complicate the probate process, such as outstanding debts or unknown assets.


If your loved one kept good records, this process may be straightforward. However, if they didn't, it could be more challenging. Your attorney can help you locate assets, determine their value, and identify any potential issues. It's essential to take care when inventorying assets and debts, as any inaccuracies or omissions could result in legal and financial consequences down the line. Your attorney can provide guidance on how to approach this step in a thorough and accurate manner.


10. Contact financial institutions:


Contact the banks, brokerage firms, and other financial institutions where your loved one had accounts. They will need to be informed of the death and will provide instructions for transferring the assets. When you contact financial institutions, you will need to provide them with a copy of the death certificate and a copy of the letters testamentary, which are legal documents issued by the court that authorize the executor to act on behalf of the estate.


It's important to note that financial institutions may have different requirements for transferring assets, and some may require additional documentation, such as a court order or a medallion signature guarantee. Your attorney can help you navigate these requirements and ensure that the assets are transferred properly.


In some cases, financial institutions may freeze the accounts until the necessary documentation is provided, which can cause delays in accessing the funds. Your attorney can also help you negotiate with the financial institutions to minimize any delays and ensure a smooth transfer of assets.


Give us a call, and we can help make a tough time easier


At Lopes Law, we understand that dealing with the legal and financial aspects of a loved one's passing can be overwhelming. Our experienced estate planning attorneys are here to help guide you through the process, providing compassionate and effective legal counsel every step of the way. 


Contact us today to learn more about how we can assist you in estate administration or the probate process.

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