WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU FIND
A LOVED ONE EXPIRED ON THE FLOOR
A step-by-step action guide of what one should do when a loved one dies.
To Do Immediately
Short Term Financing
Dear Mr. Miller: You always discuss how to avoid taxes or probate. Sometimes you talk about getting Medi-Cal benefits. All of this stuff is just “stuff”. We have a home and other properties. Of course, I’m worried about what will happen to these assets, but I’m talking about the more immediate problems and decisions.
My husband is in his eighties but has severe cardiac problems and does not have long to go. He wants to live his remaining days at home and we both agreed that would be best. But I want to know exactly what to do when I walk into the kitchen and find that he has expired right there on the floor.
I want to know: Who do I call, when do I call them, and what information should I have readily available?–GRUESOME BUT REALISTIC SPOUSE
Dear Realistic: Over the years this has been a frequently asked question. That fact alone indicates that it is on a lot of people’s minds but that most are too timid to ask. In response to your request, I have discussed this issue with several professionals in allied fields and here is what we have come up with.
To Do Immediately: If the deceased was ailing and was under the care of a physician (as will be with your husband), call him. If he was not under the care of a physician or if the death occurred while on a trip or in a public place, call the police. In the first case, the physician will complete the death certificate. In the other cases, the remains will be taken to a hospital where a death certificate will be completed. You will then contact a mortuary.
The Mortuary: In your discussion with the mortuary, you will generally set up an appointment to plan the time, location, and type of service and burial/cremation. Bring a trusted and emotionally “in tact” friend. This person will serve as the “coordinator.” The mortuary will generally order certified copies of death certificates for you (the cost will be included in their bill). On average, I suggest ordering at least 8 certificates. They will be needed for life insurance and retirement benefits in addition to obtaining control of various other assets such as bank accounts, stock certificates and accounts, or real estate.
The Notification: Additionally, have the coordinator notify loved ones and business associates. Both may wish to attend services and the latter will need to take various actions to continue any businesses or investments.
The Attorney: Next, and possibly most important, the coordinator should call your estate planning attorney. He will schedule an appointment to go over your assets and wills/trusts. He’ll be able to answer most of your financial questions, such as will probate be necessary, are death taxes due, does the property have to be divided into the “A” and “B” Trusts, and whether any documents need to be filed with the County. Remember, even with a Living Trust there are always at least a few things that need to be done. If he can’t answer some questions, he usually can put you in contact with those who can. (For more information on finding an attorney and how and how much attorneys charge, see my FAQ, especially the following questions: Does it Really Cost less to Settle an Estate in Which a Living Trust Was Used Rather than Just a Will?,
How Can One Find A Competent Estate Planning Attorney When Moving To A New State/City?,
Questions To Ask To Determine If An Estate Planning Attorney Is Really Competent, and How Do Attorneys Charge?
One important note, you will receive many offers of advice from many people. Mostly they are well-intentioned but often poorly informed. Rely on what your professional advisors tell you (and if you feel you can’t rely on what any professional tells you, get another professional) and take everything everyone else says with a grain of salt.
To the meeting with the attorney, bring all your important papers (wills/trusts, real estate deeds, loan papers or statements, bank, and stock account statements, and, if available, a list of all your assets with estimated values, a list of all current bills, and the last income tax return). A death certificate is not essential at this meeting.
The attorney will probably let you know who else you need to notify. This may include the life insurance companies, the Social Security office, the Veteran’s Administration, and any organization paying a retirement benefit or that might pay a death benefit (i.e. firms that the deceased worked for or was associated with).
Short Term Financing Assistance: If your funds are tied up due the death, several social services organizations can help. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army may provide emergency funds and various family services organizations provide counseling (including assistance in applying for financial aid) to the surviving family. They can be found in the Yellow Pages of your phone book under Social Services Organizations.
And above all, don’t make any important decisions for at least 6 months after the death of a loved one. Few people are emotionally stable enough to concentrate and make good judgments during this period of time.
Pre-Planning: Pre-planning for the inevitable can be extremely helpful. This can make the death of a loved one bearable instead of producing an expensive, time-consuming ordeal at the worst possible time.
Consider making your funeral arrangements (and perhaps prepaying them) in advance. Or at least, make a written statement of your desires (along with arrangements for transplants and donations of organs). You may wish to contact a memorial society. Although these organizations do not generally handle funeral arrangements, they provide members (and often the general public) with information on the types of funeral services that are available. Often, they have arrangements with local mortuaries at reduced rates. (The San Diego Memorial Society can be contacted at 293-0926.)
Decide who should be the family coordinator in this time of emotional distress. This should be a relative or friend who is emotionally stable and well organized. You will lean on this person considerably through this difficult period, so decide well.
Establish a relationship with a board-certified (or other competent) estate planning, trust and probate attorney. Trying to decide who you should retain in time of emotional upheaval has been the cause of numerous survivor’s complaints and, often, financial losses. You want someone who specializes in this field, who you can get along with, who is geographically close, whose fees you can live with (even if you don’t love), and who you can trust. Have him prepare a will, trust, or other estate planning documents for you as appropriate.
Make out a list of your important papers and their locations, a list of your assets (including life insurance and death benefits) and values (and update yearly), and a list of your attorney, tax advisor/preparer, and financial consultant along with addresses and phone numbers. And tell your loved ones where these lists can be found. Whether it be in your briefcase or in the top drawer of your desk, in the brown estate planning notebook on the shelf, or just in a shoebox in the closet. Once your loved ones find these lists (assuming they are reasonably up to date and accurate) their tasks will become much easier.
Please keep in mind that no two sets of circumstances are identical and that the answer to any legal problem may change drastically based on even a slight change in the circumstances.