Smith, Burnett & Hagerman, LLC
620-285-3157

When Someone Dies: Your To-Do Checklist

The death of someone close to you can be incredibly difficult, whether the loss involves a parent, spouse children or close friend.  The experience can be overwhelming.  At the same time a lot of issues arise that need attention.  Here’s a brief checklist to orient you to an orderly process.  If you have questions, call 620-285-3158.

WHAT TO DO AS SOON AS POSSIBLE:

Time to mourn.  In addition to everything else going on and which at times seem overwhelming, give yourself time to mourn.  The probate of a will in Kansas does not need to be filed immediately.  The deadline to file a will of record is six months after death.  The initial administering of a trust does not have deadlines, although it should begin in a reasonable time. 

An exception in this period of mourning is arranging for organ donations, if the decedent wanted such donation.  If the death is in a hospital, they probably will ask you about this issue.  Organ donations require action sooner not later.

Pets.  This seems like a paragraph out of place, but pet care has to be immediate.  Know ahead of time where decedent’s pets are to go.  You sometimes have to move pets to third parties even before the funeral.  While the decedent may have a “Pet Trust” in the Will, Wills are not probated immediately and the pets can’t wait.  Further, your loved one might have been caring for other people’s pets.  Quickly find someone who can care for them temporarily while you figure out a long-term plan.

If the decedent farms and lives alone, livestock care is even more acute.  Talk with neighbors.  Other family members.

Notify close friends and family. How this is done depends on the family.  Each family is different.  Use your best judgment how to do this.

Notify the person’s employer.  (if applicable).  If the deceased was employed (or actively volunteering), call to let them know of your loved one’s passing.  If you hire an estate attorney they will need to check with the employer as to any post-death employment benefits.

Secure major property. If decedent lived alone, make sure the home and any vehicles are locked up.  Go buy padlocks and lock up farm outbuildings.  Farm theft when nobody is there at the farmstead can be chronic.

WITHIN A FEW DAYS:

Help.  Realize that the settling of a deceased family member's affairs is not a one-person task. You'll need the help of others – maybe not today or tomorrow, but soon.  Lawyers or accountants can advise you on legal and financial matters.  If you are the executor, you'll oversee settling the estate and spend months dealing with the estate.

Get a legal pronouncement of death.  This is a death certificate.  Doctors determine cause of death, but usually the funeral home takes care of this for you as part of their services.  There is a cost, however.  The need for the death certificate is explained below.

Decide what you’d like to do with your loved one’s body and arrange transportation.  Hopefully there has been time for a discussion with the decedent as to what form of funeral he or she wanted.  Did they talk with someone about the funeral?  Plain or fancy?  Regular burial, “green burial,” or cremation.  Did decedent, before death, prepay the funeral costs?  Durable powers of attorney signed by the decedent when they were competent setting forth their preference should be honored.  If you know beforehand what manner of funeral they want, do some research.  Some religions, for example, discourage cremation but cremation is becoming more acceptable.  You have three possible options to consider:

Call a funeral home. Funeral homes help arrange either an ordinary burial or cremation.  Religion and religious views may play a part in this discussion. 

Make sure prior to death that the decedent is comfortable with a cremation.  Part of “comfort” is understanding exactly what a cremation involves.  Advocates of “green burials” and those advocating cremations are at opposite ends of debate spectrum.  Do some research, preferably early, so you can discuss these options with your loved one.

Nearby medical schools might take the decedent’s body.  It’s called a full-body organ donation.  Again, do the research.  Check out Science Care and Biogift.

Decide on funeral plans. If you decided to work with a funeral home, meet with the funeral director to go through your options.   Purchase a casket or an urn. 

Remember – if the funeral has not been prepaid, the funeral home looks to those who sign the contract for burial for payment.  Hopefully there are or will be funds in the decedent’s estate to reimburse funeral costs.  If not, the funeral home will file a “claim” against your loved one’s estate.

Further, each cemetery has different rules.  Example:  some cemeteries require outer casket vaults, others do not.  Your funeral home will know any of the unusual rules and the reasons for them.

Create a memorial website.  Most funeral homes now have sophisticated websites with memorial sites for each deceased person.  If you Facebook, give notice to the public and link them back to the website.  Share death announcements, the obituary, and any funeral plans that way.

The obituary.  Hopefully, if there has been time before death, the decedent has already drafted an obituary, leaving only the date of death blank.  If there has been a sudden death, that isn’t possible.  You can draft an obituary, or give information to the funeral home and they’ll draft one. Obituaries in newspapers often cost money.  Doublecheck with the funeral director or newspaper publisher.

Decide date and time of the funeral.  The covid-19 virus may change all such plans for the foreseeable future.  You may have to schedule a celebration of life event well into the future.

If your loved one lived alone, ask the post office to forward mail to you.   Stop newspaper subscriptions.  You may need to have some written authority from the decedent to get the Post office to forward mail.  It may require a copy of letters testamentary or Letters of Administration to convince the post office to cooperate. 

If your loved one lived alone, forwarding mail prevents mail and newspapers from piling up and showing that the property is unoccupied. The mail also helps you identify bills that need to be paid, and the account closed.  Premium due notices from insurance companies help you identify policies that the estate needs to make a claim.

If the post office won’t forward just on your word, ask them to HOLD your loved one’s mail until you can get authority from the court to forward the mail.

Ask a trusted neighbor to “keep an eye on the place.”

Doublecheck the home.  If your loved one lived alone, throw out old food, water plants, and look for anything else that may need regular care.   If winter is coming, winterize the home against frozen water pipes.

WHAT TO DO LEADING UP TO THE FUNERAL, MEMORIAL SERVICE OR CELEBRATION OF LIFE:

Determine whether you’ll need financial assistance. The average funeral costs between $7,500 and $15,000 depending on what you want.  Hopefully, the decedent has that much left in his or her accounts, or the amounts have been pre-paid.  The family can also divide up the funeral costs.  Otherwise you might want to consider financial assistance.  A bank is a possibility if you have credit there   

Veterans’ Benefits.  If your loved one was a veteran, there may a small assistance amount there.  The costs of burial for a decedent on active duty is considerably more than someone who was a civilian when they died.  Currently the VA pays $796 for a veteran’s burial.  Moreover, all veterans are entitled to a brass plaque that can go on the headstone stating a synopsis of the veteran’s service.  For example, if the decedent was a Vietnam veteran, that can be listed on the brass plaque.  The VA website has more “death benefits” information.   

Decide funeral participants.  Who will give eulogies, sing hymns, do readings, tell old funny stories?  Choose pallbearers, too, both official and “honorary” pallbearers, such as a good friend who is disabled. 

Order printed materials and flowers. Programs, prayer cards, flowers and other items you can make arrangements for, or perhaps the funeral home will handle all that. 

Food. If there is a post-funeral dinner, someone will need to make arrangements.  Same thing with a celebration of life.  You can provide the food, work with a caterer, bring potluck, or hold the event at a restaurant where guests can purchase their own food and drinks. Any of these options are completely acceptable and just depend on your personal preference.   Again, be aware of the Covid-19 virus and its negative impact on your event.

WHAT TO DO WITHIN A FEW WEEKS:

Reality Check.  Are you the named executor in your loved one’s will, or the named successor trustee of decedent’s trust?  Is disposition of the property controlled by a Last Will & Testament, or a Trust of some sort?  Is the decedent’s property immense or miniscule?  If the value of the property is significant, you’ll need to consult with an estate attorney and perhaps an accountant.  If decedent leaves very little property (no real estate and a total value of personal property less than $40,000), in Kansas, it might be something you can handle yourself.  If there is a will, the Executor picks the attorney. 

Find the Will or Trust document.  Your loved one's survivors need to know where any money, property or belongings will go.  Ideally, you your relative told you he or she kept the will.   Most often it is in a safety deposit box at the bank, or a gun safe at home.  It might be at the lawyer’s office safe.  The executor or the survivor trustee needs to be become involved in most of the steps going forward.  If there is no will, the estate will still be probated but by an Administrator, not an executor.

 Order a headstone.  Headstones are expensive and the costs are on top of the costs of a funeral.  This can be done well after the funeral.  Placing a marker is nothing to hurry about.  Check options.  Funeral homes often provide information about headstones.  Moreover, the cemetery where the loved one is buried may have limitations on size.  Some cemeteries permit only “flat” headstones (easier to mow around).  Your funeral home should know the rules.

Order copies of the death certificate. Your estate attorney will need them, and for a joint tenancy release forms you’ll need a few with the Register of Deeds too. 

Start the probate process of the will.  Visit a probate attorney.  The decedent’s will may be valid, but if he or she gave away their property during their life, there may be nothing to probate. However, consider whether you should hire a probate lawyer to help.

There are two main types of Kansas probate – the formal judge-approved probate, and the informal probate where there is little property to distribute.   The formal method is most often used when there is real estate to be transferred.

Maybe the deceased person’s assets were transferred “outside of probate.”  This might happen through a transfer on death deed of real estate.  Or jointly owned bank accounts or retirement accounts with named beneficiaries. 

If the estate is relatively small, doesn’t contain unusual assets and isn’t likely to be disputed by family members, a family settlement agreement can decide how to divide property.

Depending on complexity of the estate, you can hire an attorney for a “simplified” estate or a more complex one.  Fees differ.  Some attorneys take a fee as a percent of the value of the estate.  More common are estates filed with fees determined by the hour.

Are the family members and heirs “getting along?”  Family fights are the major cause of higher costs of probate.

Are there debts the decedent owes someone else?  Is there a mortgage on the decedent’s house?  Did the decedent borrow money from a third party and not repay it before death? 

More common, if decedent dies in a car accident that was decedent’s fault, you can be assured other injured parties are going to file claims against the estate.

If there are no funds to pay debts, hope that there is insurance.  Otherwise, the property in the estate may have to be sold to pay debts.  In larger estates it is not uncommon to have to sell real estate to pay some of the estate taxes. 

Unless the estate exceeds $11.4 million, there are no estate taxes due but there may be estate “income” taxes (Form 1041) due.  Kansas does not impose an estate tax.

Social Security. Unless your funeral director does so, you need to contact social security so the surviving spouse or children (especially minors) can apply for survivor’s benefits.  Visit the Social Security website.  You also need to notify social security of the death so monthly payments stop.

Notify any banks or mortgage companies.  Take copies of the death certificate and Letters of Administration or Letters Testamentary to each bank and change ownership of the accounts. You’ll need to set up an estate account and that requires having an Employer Identification Number assigned by the IRS.  The attorney can assist with all this. 

NOTE:  whenever giving a death certificate to anyone, the death certificate has your loved one’s full social security number on it.   Blacken out the SSN, leaving only the last four digits.

Reach out to any financial advisors or brokers. Identify additional financial and investment accounts your loved one held.

Contact an accountant. You’ll need to file a return for both the individual and the state estate income tax (1041) and the decedent’s final 1040 form.  Complex business and property valuations can be obtained with the assistance of a CPA or certified appraiser. 

Appraise the real estate and business operations of your loved one.  The value of real estate and business assets of the decedent receive special tax treatment (called the “stepped up basis”).  Larger estates require more complex appraisals. 

Notify life insurance companies. Fill out the claim form for any life insurance policies that the deceased had.  You can identify the companies by having mail forwarded to you and you intercept their monthly or quarterly premium payment requests.

Cancel unneeded policies. Includes health insurance, car insurance, homeowner’s insurance or anything else.  If the deceased was on Medicare, the Social Security office will inform Medicare of the death, but if your loved one had Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage (Part D), a Medicare Advantage plan and/or a Medigap policy, you need to call each yourself to cancel.

Identify and pay important bills. Make a list of bills that are likely to be due (e.g. mortgage, car payments, electricity), and do your best to track them down via the person’s mail and online accounts. Set up a plan to ensure these bills continue to be paid on time.

Close credit card accounts. Identify open credit card accounts.  They’ll be mailing your loved one’s monthly statements.   For each one, you’ll likely need to call customer service and then email or mail a copy of the death certificate.   

HINT:  If a debt is owed to a credit card company do not automatically pay it.  This is the same for all other unsecured debts owed by the decedent but for which there is no lawful judgment.  Pay these debts only if a judge says you must pay it.

Identity Theft.  Guard against ID theft.  Contact Experian, Equifax and TransUnion credit agencies and notify them in order to minimize the chances of identity theft.  Same thing – cancel driver’s licenses.  If you can, close email accounts to prevent fraud and identity theft.  Moreover, check your loved one’s credit history in another month or two to confirm that no new accounts have been opened.

Medicaid.  If your loved one was using Medicaid services during their last months and years (such as nursing home care), Medicaid will have a “claim” on the assets of the estate.  If the claim for reimbursement is bigger than the value of the property, be prepared for the state to acquire rights to all the property, then for the property to be sold or auctioned.  Sometimes if the survivors want to keep their loved one’s house, they will make an order to the state to “buy” the state’s claim and in return the property is transferred to them.  This is a complex and you should consult an attorney if Medicaid has a claim on the estate.