Checklist for Legal Documents When Someone Dies in California

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Losing a loved one is not only a challenging time for the decedent's family, but it can also be highly stressful due to the amount of paperwork they have to collect to bury that person and divide their assets. Having a checklist helps those who are responsible for the estate to stay organized.

What to Do After Death Occurs

A hospice or medical doctor responsible for the decedent will usually notify the county coroner at the time of death. If the deceased passed away at home, family members should contact the police, who will, in turn, contact the county coroner. Next, they should notify close family and friends who can help them reach others, including the decedent's employer and clergy.

They should then verify where the remains will go and iron out transportation issues in accordance with the hospital or coroner's instructions. The mortuary or funeral home will then make arrangements to transport the decedent to their eventual resting place.

The spouse or family member should locate their files, safe deposit box and other personal belongings to see if there are instructions about burial and any other last wishes to carry out. If there is a will, the decedent will usually name the executor in it. If not, the case may go to probate court unless the estate is small and can pass to immediate family members (for example, a spouse) informally. If it does go to court, the court will appoint an administrator to represent the estate.

Memorial Service Preparations and Delegating Tasks

Family members should contact a funeral director or mortuary to make funeral arrangements within a week of the person's death. These arrangements can including transferring remains for burial or cremation to another location. If they were a memorial society member, that organization might help with burial costs. If they were on public assistance, the local Department of Social Services may also help. If the decedent was a member of a fraternal or religious order, they may also provide services.

Immediate family can delegate some tasks to relatives or close friends. These include making calls or answering the phone, collecting the decedent's mail, caring for pets, guarding or patrolling the home to avoid theft, or coordinating a reception after the funeral. If the decedent had subscriptions to publications, streaming or other internet-based services, they should have these canceled or changed to another payee.

They should also have the decedent's mail forwarded to their representative or trustee. Family members must also notify the decedent's agent under conservator, family trust, trustee or power of attorney (if they have one) to help them distribute funds or provide any information regarding their last wishes.

Determining Benefits and Organizing Important Documents

Family members should contact the Social Security Administration or Veterans Affairs to stop the decedent's benefit checks (if they were getting them) and to seek possible death benefits. They must also notify pension plan administrators to request claim forms, stop checks or contact the deceased's employer for a determination of death benefits.

Ordering death certificates is also necessary. Family members will need at least one for court, one for each financial institution, partnership and parcel of land if they owned it with another person. On top of that, it's a good idea to make another two or three copies. Some items family members should have on hand (if they apply) are:

  • Instructions for the decedent's memorial, funeral or burial.
  • Rental agreement and keys to their safe deposit box.
  • Trust deeds.
  • Marital agreements.
  • Life insurance policy documents.
  • IRA, retirement or pension statements.
  • Income and gift tax returns.
  • Marriage and birth certificates.
  • Divorce documents.
  • Military and discharge records.
  • Bookkeeping records.
  • Bank account and financial institution statements, including credit cards, checkbooks or check registers.
  • Records of accounts payable and receivable.
  • Motor vehicle titles and driver's license.
  • Title policies, deeds, deeds of trust or mortgage documents.
  • Lease agreements.
  • Certificates and account statements for stocks, bonds. and annuities
  • Bankruptcy documents.
  • Corporate or partnership agreements.
  • Unpaid bills.
  • Health insurance policy documents.

The Will and Safe Deposit Box

The trustee is usually the personal representative named in the will who is responsible for administering the decedent's trust. They get a copy of the will, trust or any other estate documents the person left behind.

Anyone named on the safe deposit box may open it whenever they wish. No one else can do so, with the exception of heirs looking for a will, a deed to a burial plot or instructions for their remains. In that instance, a bank employee will open the box and hold onto these documents until presented with a court order to do otherwise.

Protecting Against Inheritance Theft

When someone dies, inheritance theft can become prevalent – people may try to get money from an estate in any way they can. Before paying incoming invoices, the person responsible for the estate should review bills in detail and secure the decedent's tangible assets. They must carefully identify all of their property and make an inventory of it.

When identifying someone's property, they should note the following:

  • Real property refers to land and what's permanently on it, like a house. It can also be a real estate lease with a minimum 10-year term or a lease with an option to buy.
  • Personal property is everything else owned by the decedent. It can be tangible like boats, cars, furniture or jewelry. It can also be intangible, which means the property shows decedent has a right to money or power

stocks and bonds fall under this category. For example, a stock certificate shows the decedent's ownership of the stock.

  • How the decedent owned the property: Did they own it alone or in partnership with someone else? Did they buy the property while married or did they do so beforehand?

Making a List of the Decedent's Assets

Once the person responsible for the decedent's estate has identified the property and collected all the necessary paperwork regarding the items, they can make a list of the decedent's debts and assets to begin the probate process. This should include everything the person owned at the time of death. They should take inventory of each item by taking photos before anyone removes the property, even if they say the decedent promised to give them those items.

Each asset should have a brief description, including its value at the time of the person's death. If they know how the decedent owned the item – for example, alone, in joint tenancy or communally – they should note that information, as well as what portion of it they owned and that portion's value.

If they have information about anyone who could file a claim against the assets to receive repayment of a loan or other debt, they should list that as well. The person managing the decedent's assets should also know that California has no state inheritance tax. While federal estate taxes may apply, there is an exemption for estates with a value of less than $3.5 million if the person died after 2009.