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Law Offices of Ronald W. Rutz
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June 10, 2002: What to Do Upon a Loved One's Death

Q: If something should happen to Dad, could you give a checklist of what to do?

A: Every situation is different, so you need to touch base with an attorney at that time, even if no court administration appears necessary. But the following points may be helpful.

The funeral home normally contacts Social Security and applies for any death benefits. Often if there is a surviving spouse, a small amount will be paid to him or her. If there is direct deposit, do not send back amounts that you feel must be returned, or even that Social Security tells you need to be returned. Social Security has the authority and will dip into the deposit account removing the amount, even if you talked to an official and thought the understanding was for you to just reimburse the agency. It may be months and many exchanges of communication before the amount of the check is reimbursed.

Order at least ten death certificates through the funeral home. Yes, you may need all of them to transfer assets. And although we are lucky to have a branch of the Department of Vital Statistics here in Fort Collins, it still is an expensive hassle to order additional certificates.

Checking accounts or any asset that is in joint tenancy will not be frozen. Checks can be written and deposited. However, the Durable Power of Attorney ends at death and the agent cannot thereafter make decisions or take action on behalf of the deceased. Remember to keep at least one checking account open for six months or more in order to deposit checks that might arrive in the deceased's name.

Hopefully, the deceased made an asset list which will be the initial checklist showing what needs to be transferred and thus indicating what kinds of legal steps are necessary. If nothing is found, then such a listing must be constructed and a determination made concerning each particular asset as to whether it was solely owned, held in tenants in common, joint tenancy, or was governed by an ownership contract such as a buy-sell agreement. Beneficiary designations also need to be noted on your list.

Locate the original Will and other asset ownership documents. Hopefully all of that will be in a safety deposit box, or safe, or somewhere all together. And hopefully these documents will be accessible (a name other than the deceased's is on the signature card of the bank box or the safe combination is available).

Then meet with an attorney to review matters and see what needs to be done. If real estate is involved which is just in the deceased's name or tenants in common, or if non-real estate assets exceeding $27,000 are held solely in the deceased's name or tenants in common, then some type of Court involvement is necessary and must be started. (Be sure that it is informal, unsupervised administration if at all possible.) For all other assets, the transfers can be handled outside of the judicial system and involve more of a clerical function.

Be sure to let others do the work for you. Use the funeral home as noted above. Insurance can be handled by any agent of that company, even if the actual selling agent is no longer available. Use a stockbroker to transfer any shares of stock physically in your possession to avoid the frustration of trying to work with transfer agents.

Finally, since I am running out of space, remember that you have only two time limitations that really count. Any court proceeding must commence within two years of death. Any federal estate tax returns, if required, must be filed within 9 months of death.

Let me know if you want another column expanding the foregoing.

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