What Legal Things Need to Be Done After a Death?

By Beverly Bird
You, the court, permission, the deceased's safety deposit box

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The law gives family members some time to grieve when a loved one dies, although not always a lot. There's typically a checklist of legal to-dos that you'll need to address within a few weeks’ time. Some are more urgent than others -- and you won’t have to handle all the details personally if the deceased named someone else as executor in his will.

Make Notifications

Try to think of everyone with whom your loved one might have had an ongoing personal, business or professional relationship, and notify those people of the death. If he was working, call his employer so you or the executor of his estate can collect any final pay that’s due him. Find out if he had a life insurance policy as a benefit of his employment. If he ever served in the military, contact the Veterans Administration, as he might have funeral or burial benefits through the VA. If he gave power of attorney to anyone, this is automatically cancelled with his death, so let the agent know that his powers are revoked by operation of law. If the agent takes any actions on behalf of the deceased after his death, this can cause a legal snarl and complicate probate. It’s very important to contact the Social Security Administration, particularly if your loved one was collecting benefits. Any checks received after the date of his death must be returned to the SSA -- and you’ll want to find out if any of his survivors qualify for death benefits.

Open Probate

Normally, the executor named in the deceased’s will submits it to the court and files a petition to open probate. The executor should also obtain the death certificate, either from the local registrar or your state’s Department of Vital Records, and make copies. Life insurance companies and retirement plan administrators typically require a copy of the certificate before they’ll transfer benefits. The executor should open a bank account for the estate -- and he should pay the deceased’s debts and taxes from it. Relatives aren’t personally liable for these debts unless they cosigned on a particular loan. The executor must also identify and protect the deceased’s assets and make sure they go to the correct beneficiaries under the terms of the will.

Deal with Non-Probate Property

Not all the deceased’s property must go through probate, so identify what property he owned that doesn’t have to get mired down in this legal process. Life insurance death benefits aren’t probate assets unless the deceased named his estate as beneficiary or the beneficiary predeceased him. Check statements for any bank accounts he held. If they’re designated as payable-on-death accounts, they also bypass probate. Real estate owned jointly with someone else with rights of survivorship doesn’t require probate to pass the deceased's share of the property.

Determine If Taxes Are Due

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia impose estate taxes. Check with a local accountant or attorney to find out if yours is one of them. If estate taxes are owed, the probate proceedings typically can’t close until taxes are paid and the state gives its OK. The Internal Revenue Service only imposes estate taxes for estates valued at more than $5.34 million as of 2014, and this threshold is adjusted yearly for inflation. Someone -- usually the executor -- must prepare any estate tax returns that are due as well as the deceased’s final personal income tax return.

About the Author

Beverly Bird has been writing professionally since 1983. She is the author of several novels including the bestselling "Comes the Rain" and "With Every Breath." Bird also has extensive experience as a paralegal, primarily in the areas of divorce and family law, bankruptcy and estate law. She covers many legal topics in her articles.