A white lily flower on top of a blurred blue background.

8 Legal Steps to Take When a Loved One Passes Away

The loss of a loved one can be overwhelming in every imaginable way – emotionally, psychologically, financially or otherwise. For surviving family members, their grief is often accompanied with a general sense of being overwhelmed by the tasks that lie ahead in wrapping up their loved one’s affairs. If you and your family members are unsure of what legal steps to take when a loved one passes away, review the following as a guide to settling their estate.

Take Time to Grieve When a Loved One Passes Away

First, just breathe. As the trustee and/or the executor of the estate, do not create more stress for yourself during this emotional time of change. Yes, there are legal steps that need to be addressed – however, it is much more important that you allow yourself to be fully present for all the events and activities surrounding the passing of your loved one.

Taking the time to grieve; to spend quality time with surviving family and friends; and to be free from distractions during the wake, funeral and burial, are essential to your emotional wellbeing. After those events have passed, we recommend giving yourself an additional one to two weeks to adjust to life without your loved one before digging in to the legal responsibilities of tying up their affairs.

Gather Important Documents

After you have taken the time to grieve and attend to your own wellbeing, then begin gathering the following documents on behalf of the decedent:

Contact an Experienced Attorney

Once all of these items have been located, the successor trustee(s) should contact an experienced estate planning and elder law attorney. Consulting with a team of qualified legal professionals can be beneficial to help guide you through the following legal process and provide support when a loved one passes away.

  1. File the Decedent’s Will
    It is required by law that any will must be filed with the Probate Clerk in the county where the deceased lived at the time of their death. Filing the will does not create a probate. An elder law and estate planning attorney can complete this step for you.
  2. Apply for a Federal Tax Identification Number
    In order to open a bank account, file fiduciary income tax returns, or complete other management duties as successor trustee(s), a Federal Tax Identification Number may be required. To apply, you will need to complete IRS Form SS-4, which can be obtained from the IRS, an accountant or an elder law and estate planning attorney.
  3. Make a Plan for the Decedent’s Real Estate Property
    In the county where their real estate is located, you will need to include in the Public Records any deeds transferring property into the trust which were not previously recorded. In some cases, it may be necessary to record an original Certificate of Trust which contains the legal description of the real estate. You must also prepare and record an Affidavit of Death when a loved one passes away. Keep the most recent property tax bill as evidence of fair market value of the property on the date of your loved one’s death, or obtain a written appraisal of each parcel of real estate. If the fair market value designated on the tax bill is substantially low, an appraisal may be advantageous. If no death taxes are due, a high fair market value is typically beneficial.
  4. Consolidate All Other Personal Property
    Present a certified copy of the death certificate and the certificate of the original trust to each bank, stockbroker or other appropriate third-parties with a financial interest in the decedent’s affairs. Ask that their assets be transferred into the successor trustee or trustees’ name(s). Otherwise, the successor trustee may close the account and consolidate all liquid assets into one account.
  5. Document Day-to-Day Financial Management
    All trust expenses and decedent’s bills should be paid from trust assets, and all income or receipts from trust assets should be deposited into one account in the name of the trust. Use that account to deposit funds and to pay bills. All receipts and all expenses should be accounted for.
  6. Take an Inventory
    An inventory of assets should be prepared, consisting of a complete list of all assets in which the decedent had an interest as of the date of their death, including the fair market value of the property as of the date of their death.
  7. File Tax Returns
    There are a number of federal and state estate tax returns to take care of when a loved one passes away, as well as fiduciary tax returns that may be required. Consult with a CPA for advice and assistance.
  8. Obtain Receipts and Releases from Beneficiaries
    At the time that any trust assets are distributed to beneficiaries named in the Declaration of Trust, it is wise for the successor trustee to obtain a signed receipt and release from each beneficiary. The receipts and releases should be kept by the successor trustee, in case a claim were to be made by a beneficiary in the future.

The staff at Beck & Lenox Estate Planning & Elder Law is here to guide our clients and their families through these important steps. It is always advisable to do some estate pre-planning whenever possible, to help ensure your affairs are in order before your health is compromised.

For more information, or to schedule a free consultation, please call our team of experienced experienced elder law and estate planning attorneys in Saint Charles serving the greater St. Louis area and beyond, at (636) 946-7899.

Please Note: This information is provided as a guideline of procedures that are followed when a client of Beck & Lenox Estate Planning & Elder Law, LLC, has passed away. Each situation may differ and may be affected by changes in the law. For that reason, we cannot guarantee that this information will be accurate for every situation. The state’s law and its application to the specific situation should be checked at the time of death. You may contact Beck & Lenox by phone at (636) 946-7899 for information regarding current law, or for help in completing the above listed procedures, if appropriate.