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Law Offices of Ronald W. Rutz
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January 10, 2005: After Death Responsibilities

Q: What should I tell my family to do after I die?

A: I have previously written on this topic but it seems that this question is asked often during the holidays.

First nothing has to be done right away. The family needs to work through their emotions but the sooner that the process is started, such as paying funeral expenses and pressing medical bills, seeing the attorney, etc., the smoother matters normally flow.

Have the funeral home order at least a dozen death certificates. Although the number may seem excessive, a dozen is a good balance and surprisingly will normally be needed.

Next be sure that the funeral home contacts social security. If it does not, then do so but do not worry about returning any deposits into the deceasedŐs bank account. Social Security has the power to withdraw funds without anyoneŐs knowledge and will do so if Social Security feels that it is entitled to take back that money. Also, ask the funeral home what other services will be offered. Some will also contact insurance companies, determine veteranŐs benefits, etc.

Do not close out any bank accounts, especially a checking account, before seeing an attorney. As long as the deceasedŐs name is on both the account and the check, it can be deposited into the checking account by the use of a tellerŐs endorsement. Otherwise the check would have to be returned and often after a long wait, may be received made out in such a way that it needs to be returned again.

The family should locate the original Will and hopefully a list of assets. If such a list is not available or does not exist, then such a listing needs to be done before seeing the attorney. It is also helpful to assemble legal documents such as deeds, vehicle titles, stock certificates, insurance policies, etc.

The asset list is the key to making the meeting with the attorney efficient and productive. First, it will act as a checklist to determine if a court proceeding will be necessary. The list will also serve as a guide as to what needs to be handled and then decisions can be made as to who should do various things.

For the most part, asset settlement does not absolutely need the involvement of an attorney. In fact, almost everything can be handled by the personal representative. The meeting can also highlight less obvious matters, such as helping to determine any tax liability and pointing out less obvious details such as getting a real estate evaluation as of date of death or determine the price of stock at the date of death, both to establish the values for the stepped-up basis and thus avoid or minimize capital gains.

The attorney will give practical suggestions such as letting the stock broker, benefitŐs office at work, insurance agent, etc., actually do the paperwork, thus avoiding a great deal of time, frustration, and "paper tag" gamesmanship with the transferring agencies. The attorney can point out practical matters such that the C.D.Ős can be cashed in early without interest or penalty, or that the vast majority of the time mortgages do not have to be paid off and can be taken over by the person inheriting the property without qualification.

The attorney will often help review the deceasedŐs life and perhaps bring to light possible areas to pursue such as benefits with the union, small policies associated with a credit card, retained mineral rights, etc.

If a Court proceeding appears necessary, the attorney can help the family decide if it wants to do the process itself or have the attorney help. Many estates are run through the Court system without benefit of an attorney.

People often ask if there is a listing of the exact steps that can be given to the personal representative beforehand. But each estate will differ at the time of death. Thus, this general outline is normally all that is needed to establish guidelines on the way to get started.

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