The holiday season is often a time of great joy and the chance to gather with loved ones. Yet for many families, it can also be a time of loss. In our years of practice, we’ve found that more people pass away during the holidays than at any other time of the year. Losing a loved one during the holidays can feel exceptionally unbearable and difficult to deal with.
Fortunately, having an idea of how to close out the estate and knowing what to prioritize can make a huge difference in reducing pressure and stress during this time. Here are the 8 most important items that we advise our clients to start with:
- Secure any property – If your loved one owned a home(s), we recommend not wasting any time before securing the valuables and getting everything locked up tight. This will not only keep the house safe from criminals and vandals, but it will also help to ensure friends or family members will not start “administering the estate” and taking what they believe to be theirs before the proper time.
- Request certified copies of the death certificate – You will need a certified copy of the death certificate to claim social security benefits, transfer property, close bank accounts, and handle any other financial affairs. If possible, order 10 to 15 copies as you will need them for a variety of tasks.
- Freeze financial accounts – You’ll want to take an inventory of your loved one’s financial affairs as soon as possible following his or her passing. Make sure all automatic debits are stopped and a freeze is placed on bank accounts and credit cards that are not jointly owned. You’ll also want to stop any automatic deposits scheduled to hit the bank account before you officially close it out.
- Locate estate planning documents and contact a probate attorney – The steps you must take to administer your loved one’s estate will depend on the documentation he or she had in place at death. If your loved one did not have a will or only had a will in place, you will likely need an attorney to assist you in filing with the probate court. If your loved one had a trust in place, you may avoid the court process, but may still need to contact an attorney to ensure the trust is administered properly and all expenses of the estate are paid.
- Relocate abandoned pets – If a loved one died leaving pets alone in the house, immediate steps must be taken to relocate the animals with another family member, friend, or local shelter. You may also want to contact your loved one’s attorney to find out if they had legal plans in place (such as a pet trust) to care for their pets upon their passing.
- Contact Social Security – Social Security must be notified following the death of a loved one. You should call them at 1-800-772-1213. Benefits will be stopped upon notification, and you can also inquire about surviving benefits for a spouse or child.
- Claim important benefits – If your loved one had life insurance or was entitled to death benefits from his or her place of employment, union, or civic organization, it’s important to contact such places and find out how to start your claim.
- Consider long-term care for the surviving spouse – If your loved one left behind a surviving spouse who is elderly and unable to live alone, consideration should immediately be given to his or her long-term care. This could mean having the spouse stay with a family member until residency at an assisted living or nursing home facility can be arranged or hiring in-home health aides who can provide care on a daily basis.
In addition to following the steps above, we also invite you to contact our office if you need help sorting through all the legalities following your loved one’s passing. We are here to guide you through your next steps to make the process of administering his or her estate as easy and stress-free as possible.