Earlier this week, my wife got a text from a friend asking what to do after someone dies. Her friend’s neighbor unexpectedly passed away, and the family didn’t know what to do next. It’s hard to deal with getting access to accounts and assets, especially during such an emotional time. My wife’s friend asked her to ask me for some guidance. Here’s some info from a Procedure on Death checklist I send to people, so they know what to do after someone dies. Not everything on this list will apply. This list helps determine what works in your circumstance.

Contact an Attorney to Determine the Following:

  • Is Probate Necessary? Probate is the process supervised by the court to access and change the title to assets. Depending on the estate size, the types of assets, and ownership of assets, probate may or may not be required. An attorney can help you determine if probate is necessary. Some types of assets are not subject to probate, such as life insurance or retirement accounts, which name direct beneficiaries. Assets titled jointly or in a trust are likewise not subject to probate. Probate is required to transfer real estate (unless it was titled jointly or in a trust). In Utah, if the total estate is less than $100,000 plus up to 4 vehicles and does not include real estate, a probate is not required. Instead, you can access the assets with a Small Estate Affidavit.
  • Do You Need to File an Estate Tax Return? You may need to file Federal or State Estate Tax Returns. A Federal Estate Tax Return is due nine months after the date of death.
  • Do You Need Help Transferring Assets to Beneficiaries/Heirs? If the person who died had a Will or Revocable Trust, it might be helpful to have guidance to handle the process. Sometimes an attorney may provide you with a to-do list, and you can handle much of it on your own. In other situations, you may want more help to administer the estate.

Funeral and Burial Arrangements

  • Were There Burial Arrangements/Instructions? If the person left funeral or burial preferences in a letter of instruction, you can follow those guidelines to carry out their wishes. Otherwise, discuss with the family to determine the best way to handle funeral and burial.
  • Make Funeral and Burial Arrangements. Contact a funeral home to help with funeral and burial. They are extremely helpful and can often guide you through more than simply the funeral and burial process. It would help if you considered shopping around for prices as well.
  • Anatomical Gifts? Did the person provide directions for anatomical gifts? Check their estate planning documents to determine if they made any wishes for anatomical gifts.

Obtain Death Certificates

You should request multiple certified copies of the death certificate. You will need these for a number of things, such as claiming life insurance or retirement accounts, canceling credit cards, accessing accounts, filing probate, etc. It is a good idea to have plenty. I would suggest having at least 10.

Wind Up Their Personal Affairs

  • Arrange to have mail forwarded as necessary
  • Cancel credit cards as necessary
  • Cancel utilities as necessary. Request refund for deposits if applicable.
  • If they were renting their home, notify the landlord of the date that the premises will be vacated and request a refund of the security deposit.
  • Review insurance policies on real estate or tangible personal property (fire, theft, casualty). Have the policies endorsed to the estate and determine if you need to increase insurance coverage or cancel coverage.
  • Determine if you should change locks on their home.
  • Contact Social Security to stop checks.
  • Determine if there was any litigation with them and seek legal counsel to determine the steps to take.

Identify and Find Their Assets

  • Inventory: After someone dies, you should prepare a detailed inventory of their assets. Determine the fair market value of each asset as of the date of death. Some assets may require appraisals. Determine the title to all assets (individual’s name, trust, etc.).
  • Safeguard: Find and safeguard items such as jewelry, collectibles, gold and silver, artwork, checkbooks, certificates of deposit, bank statements, stock certificates, bonds, investment records, brokerage statements, insurance policies, etc.
  • Safety Deposit Box: Find and take possession of the contents of their safety deposit box.
  • Social Security etc.: Apply to Social Security, Veteran’s Administration, or any other federal programs for death or survivor benefits as applicable.
  • Life Insurance: If they had any life insurance policies, contact the life insurance company and make a claim for payment of death benefit proceeds pursuant to the insurance policies. Determine whether accidental death benefits are also payable. Check with credit card companies and credit unions to see if there are any insurance benefits relating to those accounts.

Debts and Estate Administration Expenses

  • Tax Returns: After someone dies, your attorney and/or accountant can help you determine whether a final income tax return is necessary and if an estate tax return is necessary.
  • Checking Account: Determine if you need a checking account to pay their debts and estate administration expenses.
  • Debts/Expenses: Determine what expenses, debts, obligations, and taxes (income/estate) should be paid.

Distribution of Assets

  • Distribute Assets: After payment of expenses, obligations, and taxes, make proper distributions of the assets.
  • Court Approval: Consider whether you need to petition the court for approval to distribute or sell assets.
  • Waiver and Release: You should obtain Receipt and Release (aka Waiver and Release) from each of the recipients of distribution to establish the amount and nature of distributions.

Hopefully, this helps you know what to do after someone dies. It’s a very emotional time. Remember that there are people around you who are willing to help and have experience. As always, you can contact us for more information.

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Randall Sparks Law, Estate Planning Attorney, Asset Protection in Utah