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First Things First

When a family member dies, the array of emotions can be overwhelming. Just as much, the array of practical and logistical details can be overwhelming. As an estate planning attorney, I sometimes will get calls from an Estate Planning client’s family members immediately after that client’s death. This is like putting the proverbial cart before the horse. While it is important to contact an attorney after a loved ones death, it certainly isn’t the first priority.

First and foremost, address the emotional and spiritual care of a surviving spouse or child(ren). Contact their clergy person if they have a faith family. If the decedent’s family isn’t involved with a church, mosque or synagogue, hospice organizations generally have grief counselors available and on call. Pay special attention to loved ones for the first few hours after a death. Shock and trauma due to the death of a relative can show itself in different ways depending on the person’s upbringing and culture.

Next notify a funeral director and/or clergy member. Again, if your deceased family member did not have a faith home, funeral home directors can recommend someone appropriate to conduct a service. Depending on the decedent’s beliefs and personality, this can be a more traditional funeral, a Celebration of Life, or a Homegoing. The funeral home will also handle several logistical issues besides the funeral or memorial service. A representative from the funeral home will coordinate ordering death certificates and will contact the Social Security Administration of your family member’s passing.

If you’ve never had an opportunity to discuss funeral plans with your deceased family member, do a cursory check of their important papers to see if there are any pre-planned and/or pre-paid funeral arrangements. These may include special requests such as specific wording of the obituary or special music the decedent wants played. If the decedent is a military veteran, they may be entitled to special honors at the funeral or memorial service.

Only concern yourself with administering the decedent’s estate after the memorial service is completed and the next step of the grieving process has begun. Often times surviving family members, especially widows or widowers feel pressure to start giving away sentimental items immediately. There’s no need to do this quickly and a surviving spouse is often better able to think clearly about who gets what after a few days or even weeks have passed.

In emotionally healthy families, people will understand this decision to postpone giving away items and the reasoning behind it. Sometimes if family members express a sense of entitlement to certain items it may even be necessary to secure the decedent’s home during the funeral and wake. Ask a neighbor of trusted friend who is not attending the funeral to stay at the home while the immediate family is gone to the funeral. Also, if there is concern that Great Aunt Betty may choose to ransack Grandma’s jewelry box during the reception at the family home, have the reception at a banquet hall or fellowship hall instead.

Once the deceased family member is properly memorialized, then and only then, is it time to administer the estate. I don’t know of anyone who enjoys talking about death or dying, and yet, what estate planning attorneys do is help our clients to plan for their inevitable passing. We set up a Trust or Will based estate planned designed to protect family members, transfer assets and ensure that the client’s wishes are honored after their death. If your deceased family member had a Last Will and Testament or Trust, it’s generally best to contact the law firm that prepared those estate planning documents, although it’s certainly not required. Any Florida licensed attorney who concentrates their practice in estate planning or probate is capable of assisting your family.

Sometimes a deceased family member won’t have taken the time to write a Will. In this case, their estate can still be probated using the default rules in the Florida Statutes. Regardless of if a Will exists or not, it’s best to consult with an attorney to find out what needs to be done to smoothly transfer ownership of your loved one’s assets.

When you come to the consultation appointment bring the original Will if one exists. It’s helpful to bring as much information as you have about the deceased loved one’s belongings, retirement benefits, life insurance policies and financial accounts. Also bring at least 3 certified copies of the death certificate. Examples of some information you will want to try to find to bring to the consultation are:

-A copy of the receipt for funeral or memorial services

-Most recent bank statements for accounts on which decedent’s name appears as either sole or co-owner in any capacity and copy of signature card for each account.

-All passbooks and savings certificates on which the decedent’s name appears.

-Titles for all automobiles, recreational vehicles, boats, trailers, motorcycles, airplanes, etc., in which decedent had any ownership interest.

-Most recent statements for all mutual fund and stock brokerage accounts

With this information, your attorney can advise you on what steps are necessary to transfer your deceased loved one’s belongings to the proper recipients and if probate is necessary. However, please remember the meeting with an attorney can and should wait until the decedent has been properly memorialized and the family’s emotional needs have been addressed.