By Bernard A. Krooks, Certified Elder Law Attorney
When someone you love passes away, it can be a very emotional and difficult time for the entire family. Fortunately, most of us only have to endure this process a few times during our lives. While that is the relatively good news, the bad news is that we may not be prepared to do what needs to be done. Of course, funeral arrangements must be made, and the grieving process must begin. However, there are several other items which may require attention, including securing the house, taking care of pets, forwarding the mail, among others. Here’s just some of the things that may need to be done:
Pets need to be taken care of. Will someone take responsibility for Fido? He surely can’t be left in the house alone without food or water. If a pet trust was set up for Fido, then there should be a source of funds to take care of him. If not, then this needs to be addressed.
Make sure that the house or residence is secure. Someone should turn the lights on and off every day, pick up the mail, cancel newspapers, etc. Locks may need to be changed, especially if there were caregivers or others who had access to the house while the decedent was alive.
The refrigerator needs to be cleaned out and the house otherwise needs to be maintained; otherwise, significant other problems could arise.
Destroy credit cards in the decedent’s name. Do not attempt to charge the funeral bill or other items on the decedent’s credit card. Cancel them immediately so that they are not used by someone else in a fraudulent manner.
Call the decedent’s lawyer to make sure that he/she is aware of the client’s death and to discuss next steps. While you may not need to meet with the lawyer for a couple of weeks, it is important to at least touch base shortly after the person’s death. If you are in town for a short time you might well want to meet right away, at least briefly. This raises another question: Do you have to hire the decedent’s lawyer to assist with the estate administration? The answer is no; the executor has the right to work with a lawyer of his/her choosing. The probate or estate administration process can take anywhere from several months to years, depending upon the complexity of the estate and the type of assets he/she held at the time of death.
Regardless of which lawyer is selected, you should assemble a list of bank accounts, annuities, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, brokerage accounts, real estate and all other assets. This will speed the process up immeasurably. It will likely also make it much easier for the lawyer to realistically estimate the cost and time to get the probate (or trust) administration completed. Also, prepare a list of all creditors.
You will need a number of death certificates. These are easy to obtain right after death and you should make sure you have enough. The funeral home can assist you in this regard. It’s always better to get a few more than you think are necessary.
At some point the lawyers will need names and addresses for all the heirs and beneficiaries. For some, they may also need dates of birth and even Social Security numbers. You can speed the process up if you start collecting that information.
One last point we want to make: if you or anyone else had a power of attorney for the person who passed away, it is no longer valid. While a “durable” power of attorney survives even if the signer becomes incapacitated, no power of attorney survives the signer’s death. Do not sign checks, make credit card charges, or do anything else using the power of attorney. In order to have authority to perform these tasks, you must be appointed as a fiduciary such as a trustee or executor of the estate.
Bernard A. Krooks, Esq., is a founding partner of Littman Krooks LLP and has been honored as one of the “Best Lawyers” in America for each of the last seven years. He is past President of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) and past President of the New York Chapter of NAELA. Mr. Krooks has also served as chair of the Elder Law Section of the New York State Bar Association. He has been selected as a “New York Super Lawyer” since 2006. Mr. Krooks may be reached at (914-684-2100) or by visiting the firm’s website at www.elderlawnewyork.com.