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FAQs: What Needs to Be Done When Someone Dies?

Law Offices of Lawrence H. Nemirow PC Dec. 13, 2023

Death is something we don’t like to think about, and yet we have so many questions about it. Preparing for the future and the loss of a loved one is an emotionally taxing experience. Because on top of dealing with grief and final arrangements, there are also legal and financial matters that need to be addressed.  

During this challenging time, many questions arise regarding what needs to be done following their passing. As an estate planning and probate attorney, I'm here to provide guidance and answer some of these frequently asked questions. 

What's the first step to take when someone dies? 

When someone dies, the initial step is to inform the relevant authorities. If the death happens at home or unexpectedly, you'll need to contact the police or emergency services.  

In cases where the deceased was under hospice or healthcare facility care, they'll guide you through the necessary procedures. 

Do I need to obtain a death certificate? 

Absolutely. I'd recommend obtaining multiple certified copies of the death certificate. These copies are not only required for legal and financial matters, such as closing bank accounts, filing insurance claims, and transferring assets, but also serve as vital documentation for various administrative procedures that may arise during this challenging time.  

Having multiple copies ensures that you have the necessary paperwork readily available whenever it is needed, providing peace of mind and streamlining any upcoming legal processes. 

How do I handle the deceased person's assets and debts? 

It's essential to gather all pertinent documents, such as wills, trusts, and financial statements. I recommend consulting with an estate planning attorney like myself to guide you through the appropriate steps concerning the deceased person's assets and debts, which may include probate proceedings or trust administration. 

What is probate, and is it necessary? 

Probate is the legal process that deals with administering a deceased person's estate. Whether probate is required depends on several factors, including the estate's value and how assets were titled.  

If you find yourself in a situation where you are unsure whether probate is necessary, seeking the guidance of a knowledgeable probate lawyer can provide valuable insights and clarity. They can thoroughly evaluate the specific circumstances surrounding your case and offer personalized advice tailored to your needs, ensuring that you make informed decisions regarding the probate process. 

I've been named the executor of an estate. How do I notify beneficiaries and distribute assets? 

As the executor, your primary responsibility is to carry out the deceased person's wishes as outlined in their will. Once you have obtained letters testamentary from the court, granting you authority to act on behalf of the estate, you can begin notifying beneficiaries and distributing assets.  

After identifying the assets and debts, it's vital to inform beneficiaries named in the will or trust. When it comes to distributing the assets, it must be done according to the instructions laid out in these documents.  

It's crucial to follow proper legal procedures and protocols during this process to avoid any potential disputes or complications. An attorney can assist with ensuring proper asset distribution in accordance with the law and your loved one's wishes. 

What should I do if there is no will or trust? 

If the deceased didn't leave a will or trust, their estate will be distributed following state intestacy laws. In California, if someone passes away without a valid will, their assets are distributed according to the state's intestacy laws. Here's a general breakdown: 

  1. Surviving Spouse or Domestic Partner: If there is a surviving spouse or domestic partner, they usually receive all of the deceased's community property (property acquired during the marriage or partnership) and a portion of the separate property (property owned before the marriage or partnership or acquired by gift or inheritance during the marriage or partnership). 

  1. Children: If the deceased had children, but no spouse or partner, the children inherit everything. If there's a spouse or partner, the children may also receive a portion of the separate property. 

  1. Parents and Siblings: If the deceased has no spouse, partner, or children, the estate goes to their parents. If the parents are not alive, it goes to their siblings. 

  1. Extended Family Members: If there are no immediate family members, the estate could go to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., depending upon who is closest in line. 

Remember, these are general rules, and the specific distribution can vary based on many factors. Also, certain assets, like those held in a living trust or life insurance proceeds, typically aren't subject to intestacy laws. As a probate attorney, I can help you understand these specific laws and guide you through the process. 

How do I handle outstanding debts and creditors? 

Creditors must be notified of the person's passing and provided with the necessary documentation. Seeking the guidance of an attorney can greatly aid in identifying the validity of debts and determining the appropriate course of action to fulfill them.  

What are the tax implications of someone's death? 

The tax implications vary depending on the estate's size and relevant tax laws.  

Firstly, it's crucial to identify all the existing debts. This includes everything from mortgages and loans to credit card balances and medical bills. I can help you compile a comprehensive list to ensure nothing is overlooked. 

Once we have the list, we'll need to notify each creditor about the death. In some cases, this might involve submitting a copy of the death certificate, which I can help you with. It's important to remember that some debts, like certain types of student loans, might be discharged upon the debtor's death. 

Next comes the process of settling these debts. Typically, this is done through the estate of the deceased person. If there are sufficient assets in the estate to cover the debts, they will be paid off in order of priority as dictated by state law. However, if the debts exceed the value of the estate, it may become insolvent. In such cases, many states have laws that determine the order in which creditors will be paid. 

Handling outstanding debts and creditors can be a daunting task, but it's one I'm equipped to assist you with. 

Can I access the deceased person's digital assets? 

Digital assets could include anything from social media accounts and email accounts to digital photos, videos, and even cryptocurrency. 

Firstly, it's critical to understand that each platform has its own policy for handling accounts of deceased users. For example, Facebook allows you to memorialize an account or remove it entirely, while Google has an "Inactive Account Manager" feature that lets users determine what happens to their data after they pass away. 

If the deceased left instructions about their digital assets in their estate plan, those directions should be followed. But if they didn't, we may need to petition the court for access. Depending on the circumstances, some service providers may require a court order before granting access to a deceased person's account. As your attorney, I can help you understand the legal requirements for accessing and managing these digital assets. 

How can I plan ahead to make things easier for my loved ones? 

To ease the burden for your loved ones, it's crucial to have a comprehensive estate plan in place. As an estate and probate lawyer, I firmly believe that everyone should have a comprehensive estate plan in place. This includes creating a will, establishing trusts, and designating beneficiaries. Regularly reviewing and updating your estate plan to reflect changes in your circumstances or wishes is also advisable. 

Get Your Questions Addressed by an Attorney 

Losing a loved one is never easy, but understanding the necessary steps and having professional guidance can alleviate some of the burdens. If you have further questions or require assistance, don't hesitate to reach out to me. I'm here to support you during this challenging time.  

At the Law Offices of Lawrence H. Nemirow PC, based in Los Alamitos, California, I offer a range of legal services to clients throughout Los Angeles County, Orange County, and other nearby areas. My practice areas include estate planning, probate, business law, insurance law, veterans’ appeals, and elder law. Contact me today to learn how I can help you build your future, your way.