The Legal Steps to Take When a Loved One Dies (Part 1 of 3)

funeral-boulder-smSadly, several of my clients have recently passed away. As a result, I thought a word or two about the legalities surrounding a death might be in order. When coping with a death it is often difficult to think straight, let alone consider the legal steps that must be taken; often it is wise to seek a friend or trusted advisor—someone less deeply aggrieved by the loss—to help you through.

In this three-part series, we will examine: first, what to do immediately after someone dies; next, steps to take in administering the deceased’s estate; and, finally review a few often-overlooked details that may aid in the smooth administration of the loved-ones’ business and legal affairs.

As a qualified medical profession must make the official pronouncement of death, a medical professional should be contacted. If the person dies at home, the coroner should be called (unless there is a chance that the person is still living, in which case 911 should be called).

If the loved on dies in a hospital, obviously medical professionals will be present and will not have to be contacted. Additionally, the decision, in accordance with the deceased’s wishes, whether or not to donate organs must be made. Good estate planning should include a living will to make this and other similar decisions easier.

Friends and family should be immediately notified of the death.

The body must be picked up. This may be arranged according to the Coroner’s instructions or those of a mortuary or crematory selected for disposal of the deceased’s remains. It is worth knowing that under Federal law price information for such services must be given over the phone by the provider.

Within the first day or two of the death, you should look through the loved one’s papers. The purpose of this initial look-through should be to discover if he or she had any prepaid burial plans, had selected a plot or mortuary, and/or had any written instructions regarding his or her funeral arrangements. These documents may well be in a safe deposit box in which case, you should look for instructions identifying where the box is held.

Final funeral and burial arrangements must be made. These arrangements may include, at your election, transport of the body to another location from that which initially retrieved the body. If the deceased was receiving public assistance, burial assistance may also be available; contact your county’s Department of Social Services if this is the case. If the deceased was either in the military or was the spouse or dependent child of a veteran, the Veteran’s Administration should be contacted. If you prefer, the mortuary will call the VA at your request. You may also wish to contact any fraternal and/or religious organizations or institutions with which the deceased was associated as it may have been his or her wish that such organization is involved in or conducts the funeral service.

If you wish to place an obituary, particularly in advance of a funeral service, your local newspaper should be contacted.

If you encounter problems with a funeral director or the funeral home itself, you may wish to contact the Funeral Service Helpline (800/228.6332).

Once the immediate needs revolving around the death are taken care of, there are, unfortunately, myriad “administrative” matters which must be addressed. These include the mundane (such things as picking up the deceased’s mail, caring for pets, and taking care of perishables—plants, food, etc.), and the more detailed and complex.

First, a death certificate must be obtained. This can most easily be accomplished through the funeral director. Though there will be a fee associated with obtaining the death certificate, if you need multiple copies (and it is likely that you will), the additional copies will come at a lower price. In order to figure out how many certificates you may need, try to estimate the number of separate assets held by the deceased plus the number of institutions the deceased was involved with that may require a certificate. You can always order more certificates later through the Department of Vital Statistics in the county where the death occurred or through the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Vital Records Office.

Next, you should try to locate the deceased’s testamentary instruments (will, trusts, and other estate documents), titles to property, vehicle registrations, and any similar documents. To make matters easier on survivors, everyone should be clear about where these documents are located. It is a good idea to keep copies of all such documents in a secure place in your home and to keep the originals in a safe deposit box (of course the bank, branch, and box number should be kept with the copies so the originals are easily secured).

In the next part of this three-part series, we will discuss who to contact, what to ask, and what you should hope to accomplish. We will also take a look at how to go about collecting relevant information and making sense of what you have collected. In the third part of the series, we will visit other aspects of administration of the loved-one’s estate and discuss a few often overlooked “details” that should be considered, and which might otherwise be neglected, when a loved one dies.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices Of Counsel in the Vail Valley with the Law Firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddison, Tharp & Weinberg, LLC. His practice areas include: business & commercial transactions, real estate & development, family law, custody, & divorce and civil litigation.
Mr. Robbins may be reached at 970/926.4461 or at his e-mail address: Robbins@SLBLaw.com