Linkedin  Facebook  Twitter  
Jane Wolk
Trusts & Estates
and Elder Law Update

What To Do After Your Loved One Dies


The death of a loved one can be a very stressful and emotional time in your life, especially if it was unexpected. The last thing you want to worry about in the moment are the legal implications of your loved one’s death. The unfortunate reality is that sooner rather than later you will have to deal with the legalities of the situation. This article is meant to provide some general guidance that can help get you through during this emotional time.


1. Inform Proper Authorities and Institutions of the Death.


If your loved one dies in his or her own home, you should call 911 and have an ambulance come to the residence to officially declare the individual deceased and transport the body to a funeral home. If your loved one dies in a hospital or nursing home, the staff there will make those arrangements.


This is also the time you should inform family members and friends and your loved one’s employer of the death. Dealing with the death of a loved by yourself is very difficult. If possible, try to rely on others to help you where they can. You may benefit from professional assistance from Estate attorneys and/or accountants.


You should contact all financial institutions, credit card companies, home insurance and car insurance companies, life insurance companies, the Motor Vehicle Commission and the Social Security Administration to inform them of the death and prevent any potential fraud. Be mindful that if the deceased kept legal documents, such as a Last Will and Testament, in a safety deposit box within a bank in his or her sole name, this will delay the probate process as the bank will not grant you access to obtain the legal documents without a Court Order. It is therefore suggested that such legal documents remain in a secure place within the deceased individual’s home or left with the attorney who drafted the Last Will and Testament.


2. Search for Legal Documents and Prepare Funeral Arrangements.


Ideally, your loved one had a conversation with you to discuss where he or she keeps his or her legal documents and what his or her preferred wishes are pertaining to the funeral arrangements. If you did not have such a conversation with your loved one, you should search the home of your loved one for such documents, determine if they may have been kept in a security deposit box, or reach out to the attorney who drafted such documents. There is also a possibility that your loved one never had such documents drafted.


If you are able to locate these legal documents, review them to see if any wishes pertaining to the funeral arrangements were discussed. If there are no legal documents or your loved one’s wishes are not mentioned, you should have a meeting with your immediate family to discuss the funeral arrangements. Once a decision has been made, reach out to a funeral home to start the process. If your loved one was a veteran or passed away from Covid-19, there may be programs available to assist with the cost of funeral arrangements. The funeral home will also order Death Certificates for you. Depending on the amount of institutions you need to contact, you should request an adequate amount of Death Certificates.


3. Secure the Property, Make Arrangements for Pets and Forward Mail.


Upon the death of your loved one, make sure that his or her home is locked and secured. If your loved one lived alone, and you know that multiple individuals had keys to the home, you may want to change the locks. Make sure to clean out the refrigerator and empty the trash bins. If there are valuables in the home, make sure that they are locked away securely.


If your loved one had pets, make arrangements for them to be properly cared for.


You should also contact the post office, in person or online, and have your loved one’s mail forwarded to the individual that will handle the administration of your loved one’s Estate.


4. Review the Last Will and Testament (If Applicable).


If your loved one executed a Last Will and Testament (the “Will”) and you have it in your possession, review the language and see who is appointed as the Executor of the Estate. You will have to give the original Will to the named Executor. The original Will must be probated in the county your loved one lived in. Be mindful that some counties are strict and may not accept the Will without a Court Order if the staples in the Will have been moved or removed. Consequently, do not unstaple the original Will to make copies.


If there is no Will but there are Estate assets that must be administered, you should discuss among your family to decide who is willing to serve as Administrator of the Estate. Under New Jersey law, there is an order of priority as to who may serve as Administrator, as follows:


  • Surviving spouse or domestic partner.
  • Descendants.
  • Parents.
  • Grandparents.
  • Descendants of grandparents.
  • Step-children or their descendants.
  • Any other person.


5. Probate the Will or Apply for Letters of Administration.


The named Executor will need an original Death Certificate and the original Will to bring to the Surrogate’s Court in order to probate the Will. In New Jersey, the Executor cannot probate the Will until ten (10) days after the date of death of the decedent. Thereafter, the Executor would go to the Surrogate’s Court in the county in which the decedent resided at the time of death. The staff at the Surrogate’s Court can guide you through the paperwork that needs to be completed in order for the named Executor to receive Letters Testamentary, which is a Certificate to show to the institutions that you have qualified as Executor with the Surrogate’s Court. There will also be a fee based off of the number of pages of the Will, qualification papers and how many Certificates the Executor requests.


The proposed Administrator would do the same thing, except there would be no Will and the Certificates are called Letters of Administration. There would still be a fee for the Certificates and qualification paperwork.


There is much to do even after you have qualified as either an Executor or Administrator, starting with marshalling assets, creating an inventory, paying off the decedent’s debts, filing any tax returns and much more before the Estate administration process is completed. Consequently, you may find it advantageous to contact an Estate attorney to assist you with the probate/administration in the Surrogate’s Court, followed by the administration of the Estate. Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, P.C. has Estate attorneys that have the experience and knowledge necessary to assist you during this difficult time in your life. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact us. 

Contact Us