In most cases, you are not required to rush into dealing with legal responsibilities after the death of someone close to you. Ideally, whoever is named as the executor of your loved one's last will and testament steps forward during this time, and begins taking care of the legal responsibilities for you. If not, or if your loved one did not leave a will, you may have to begin the probate process on your own.
Someone in authority must pronounce the death. In most states, this is the coroner's office or your family physician, if your loved one dies at home. If she dies in a hospital or nursing home, the staff pronounces the death. This is necessary to attain an official death certificate to meet your other legal responsibilities. The funeral director usually helps you get the certificate. Ask for at least six copies.
You must notify anyone who was making any sort of payments to the deceased, including employers, the Social Security Administration, the Veteran's Administration, and any pension funds. You should contact Social Security early, if your loved one received checks. Don't risk any payments made after the date of death. Sometimes this can't be avoided, but the SSA is hyper-vigilant about fraud, so try to prevent it, if possible. If your loved one collected VA benefits and any are paid out after his death, you can return these checks within a month. You must supply copies of the death certificate to many of these entities, as well as to life insurance companies.
Gather all the documentation you can find regarding the deceased's assets and debts, including insurance policies, investment and bank accounts, credit card and loan statements, titles to motor vehicles and mortgages. If a will is located among this paperwork, you can turn everything over to the person named as executor; the executor oversees the settlement of the estate. If a will is not found, consult with an attorney. Laws in each state vary slightly as to how an estate proceeds when someone dies with assets or debts, with no last will or testament stating how everything should be dispersed.
If you do locate a will among the deceased's papers, many states require you to file it with the probate court in the county where she died within a certain period of time. It is the executor's duty to see to this. If you are named as executor and you don't want the job, notify the court and someone else will be appointed. Once the executor has entered the will for probate, she is responsible for collecting and safekeeping all assets, paying all the deceased's debts and taxes from the funds of the estate, then making final distributions to beneficiaries. The probate court oversees this process, and a final report must be filed to close the estate.