“What should I do first when someone dies?” — Part 1

I have found that family members who seem to be close may not know as much about of that person’s life or what plans s/he may have put down in writing as to what to do if s/he dies.  When it came to my Uncle — dying at 66 somewhat unexpectedly — his sisters knew broad strokes of things he mentioned to them but were not familiar with specifics.  So frankly I took it upon myself to be ‘nosy’. After all none of us knew where to begin and my cousins (“the Kids”) didn’t have a clue about financial and legal affairs in general or his.  My Uncle was a very private person and given the capacity of the Kids (although 29 and 32 years of age) due to their disabilities he didn’t discuss these types of matters with them — so you begin at the beginning.

Since the group of us — the Kids + my Uncle’s 2 sisters, my Uncle’s cousin, a nephew & myself — had a lot to tackle in about 4 days before each of us had to head back to our own lives hundreds of miles away, we needed to maximize our time while still spending time with the Kids, reassuring them they were going to be okay without their parents and we would help them get through this time.

We needed to:

  • Plan a service at the local funeral home;
  • Make a slideshow of family photos for the service;
  • Jot down thoughts for those of us who wanted to say a few words;
  • Talk to the HR contact at my Uncle’s job about his payroll, benefits, etc.;
  • Talk to the insurance agent about the cars, the house, etc.;
  • Talk to his investment broker about his IRAs and life insurance policies;
  • Clean up the house;
  • Toss stuff the Kids don’t need to see or deal with that were very private;
  • Find photos and documents;
  • Get clothes and shoes for the Kids for the service and in general;
  • Buy groceries for the Kids so they’re stocked up once we all left town;
  • Set up bank accounts for the Kids since now there were no parents to buy groceries, etc.;
  • Check the doors, locks, windows etc. to make sure the house was safe for the Kids to stay in for the next month;
  • Fill out paperwork to make insurance claims, etc.;
  • Get the Kids IDs updated since they had expired;
  • And more….

To accomplish many of the tasks listed above we needed documents that we believed were in the house.  So you go through and look all over the house for all of the following — this is no time to be shy!

  • Wallet(s)
  • Checkbook(s)
  • Credit card(s)
  • Insurance policies and papers
  • IRA and other investment documents and statements
  • Birth certificates
  • Social security number(s)
  • Mother’s maiden name
  • Insurance papers
  • Business cards for insurance agent, lawyers, etc.
  • Will(s)
  • Trust Agreements
  • Bills: utilities, medical, etc.
  • HR contact at her/his job
  • Name and number of his/her boss
  • Address book
  • Safety deposit box keys
  • And all other papers….

I caution you, don’t be quick to toss out something just because it doesn’t look important at first glance. Carefully go through all papers to make sure it isn’t something you or the family might need later on.

So we set up teams and we set up work areas.  I bought clear storage containers, big Sharpie markers, garbage bags, a journal, boxes of latex gloves, 5 oversized bright T-shirts for each of us — just for starters.  We went to Walmart probably twice a day buying items to help us complete our To Do List.

  • One of us went through my Uncle’s computer and deleted private items;
  • One of us went through my Uncle’s gun collection and other collectibles making an inventory, cleaning them, deciding how to store them;
  • One of us went through all the photos and artwork;
  • One of us went through my Uncle’s clothes and other things with one of the Kids so he could decide what he wanted to keep and what we would donate.
  • One of us went through the desks, the closets and the books looking for all papers, documents, files, envelopes, etc. — all of which were brought out to me to carefully read.  I read everything before making decisions on what was urgent, what we needed to keep and what we could shred and toss.

Now you may ask: “why did they need latex gloves and oversized t-shirts?” Although the house my Uncle, Aunt and the Kids lived in was a cozy two bedroom, they had lived there since 1982 and had accumulated a lot — a lot of Books, CDs, DVDs, VHS, papers, LPs, dishes, camera equipment, computer stuff, and more.  They lived in the mountains, far from town — far from the grocery store, the movie theaters, the hustle and bustle — so they kept themselves quite occupied and entertained.  It took us at least 20 hours to go through it all just to be able to say ‘we combed through the house and found all the important papers’. We also wanted to be comfortable leaving the Kids in the house for about 30 days until the apartment they would move to would be ready.

We tried to utilize office supplies we found in the house right away. I labelled file folders and organized documents immediately as I went through them as I knew I’d be taking the storage bin home with me.

Ahead of me were many tasks, a lot of phone calls, letters,  faxes, emails — all things I am used to doing in my everyday legal work for clients.  But of course this was a lot more personal.  I had to be very careful handling the legal affairs of 2 disabled adults who didn’t understand or comprehend any of these matters and who certainly couldn’t  handle these matters on their own.  The Kids instantly became my clients and unknowingly trusted me with their lives and their future well-being.

In Part 2 I will discuss filing insurance claims, filing for 401K and pension benefits, converting IRAs, cancelling utilities (or at least trying), updating car and house insurance policies.

In Part 3 I will discuss opening a Probate case.

“I thought if I wrote a Will my family could avoid Probate!”

Last year when I was talking with my husband about dealing with Probate Court regarding my Uncle’s Estate – since my Uncle’s family wouldn’t know where to begin or what to do – my husband said to me:

I always heard that if you wrote a Will then Probate Court could be avoided.

I was surprised to hear this. But the more I’ve spoken to people the more I’ve learned this is what people have come to believe.  This is totally inaccurate information.  A family of a recently deceased person CANNOT avoid Probate Court simply because the person did leave a Will – containing specific instructions about their Estate.

First, an Estate is defined in layman’s terms as all of that person’s assets at the time of their death. This includes all of the following:

  • Money in bank accounts
  • Cars
  • Houses
  • Furniture
  • Clothing and shoes
  • Jewelry
  • Cameras
  • Books
  • Other personal belongings and more….

Second, Probate Court is a specific division of the Courts that handles the proper distribution of an Estate (someone’s assets) upon their death whether by enforcing a valid Will or by following Intestate Succession Rules (statutory rules that must be followed because the deceased person did not have a Will or a valid Will). Probate Courts also prevent the mishandling of an Estate, oversee the handling of the Estate and distribution, makes decisions as to whether a person’s Will is valid or not, and also handles creating Special Needs Trusts.

Back to my story: I was discussing with my husband that when I opened my Uncle’s Estate (this is what they call the procedure) with the Probate Court I learned that although my Uncle had a Will – which I presented to the Court – it was not valid because I did not have the “blue ink” signed original.  All we could find — among the many piles of papers the family and I went through in the house — was 2 copies, signed, notarized and witnessed.

Lesson 1: Make sure you leave your “blue ink” signed original Will well stored so family can find it EASILY & QUICKLY . You may want to keep it in a safety deposit box with other key documents, like birth certificates, Trust documents, items that are hard to replace.  You might want to leave it with the lawyer who drafted it and simply leave a notation in multiple locations — like your address book, a journal, an email you send to key family members or friends — as to who to contact to obtain the original will.

The odd part to me about finding my Uncle’s Will and it not being valid is that when I asked to be appointed as my Aunt’s personal representative to wrap up her Estate in the Probate Court — since my Uncle started it but didn’t finish it — I discovered that her Will submitted to the Court and accepted, was a copy.

Lesson 2: “It never hurts to ask.”  When you find any important documents among someone’s belongings keep them all as you never know if you might need it or can use it.  Maybe my Uncle submitted the copy of my Aunt’s will to the Clerk and it made it into the file with no one noticing it was not an original….  Maybe the judge accepted it because he stated he diligently looked for the original and could not find it but that this copy was identical to the original… I’ll never know. 

Lesson 3: Don’t assume because the person wrote a Will that it is valid or that you don’t have to Open a Probate case. 

Another reason for opening a Probate case is to allow creditors of the deceased to submit their claims to the Estate and allow the Court to make sure those creditors should rightfully be paid rather than letting the family simply pay a debt without knowing whether the debt is valid and collectable.  Once the Probate Court closes an Estate creditors can no longer make claims to the Estate. They missed their chance.

With my Aunt’s Estate the Probate case remained opened for about 24 months — longer than typical on a simple, small Estate mainly because my Uncle didn’t complete tasks once he opened it.

With my Uncle’s Estate, it will remain open for a minimum of 14 months from the date of his death.  I opened it in June 2015 after he passed in April 2015.  I should be able to close it fully in June 2016 as no creditors have made any claims.

Lesson  4: It pays to act promptly and  efficiently. If need be talk to a lawyer about opening a  Probate case or at a minimum ask questions of the Clerk of the Probate Court, see if there is a free help desk to obtain directions from.

I will try to add to this Post links to public information for point of reference.

Have you ever tried to advise someone to plan for the future of their children – after their death?

If you have ever tried to advise a close friend or a family member that they should plan ahead to care for their children –  in the event of the person’s death – then maybe you have walked in my shoes.   This isn’t such an unusual situation – suggesting people write a Will so it is clear what their wishes are regarding their funeral or memorial arrangements and leaving gifts for children and family members.

This does get complicated where one’s children are disabled – at any age!

This all began in July 2013 when my mother’s sister passed away, I had thought unexpectedly, but discovered later she was actually quite ill and hiding it from me.  I got the call, made arrangements to get a plane as soon as possible, pack, rent a car, travel all day, arrive at my Uncle and cousins house at midnight –  and that was just the beginning.  I thought I was simply going to help with the funeral, console my cousins – since I knew how they felt losing a mother –  and grieve myself.

After getting over the initial shock and visiting with my cousins over a box of old photos — telling old stories — I had a realization:

What’s going to happen to them when their father dies?

This was an awful moment for me and I knew I had to take action.  I certainly wished I knew then what I know now — that my Uncle was also sick and hiding it from me — he died a year and half later.

My cousins are now in their 30s, yet neither of them drives – or ever will – they don’t work a full-time 40 hour a week job – and never will – they cannot handle their own legal and financial affairs.  My cousins are legally disabled. Due to mental and physical impairments they are simply not as intelligent or sophisticated about some of the goings on in the world – and they need some help.  Neither has ever written a check and cannot budget or balance a checkbook; Nor do they always understand the mechanics of how things work (like the computer talking to the internet through the cable line and cable box) they just want it to work. Surprisingly though they recently impressed me with their thoughts on the upcoming election and the candidates – they do follow the news.

I aim to share my story of how my cousins became my clients and how I have become something of a guardian to them – although not officially or legally.  I hope this may assist you in your own affairs or in helping someone else.

Zoe – zoe@zoebiel.com

Disclaimer: I am an Illinois attorney practicing in real estate matters. This blog and the information herein is not meant to be legal advice that you should rely on. You should always consult an attorney about your individual circumstance – especially as every State’s laws are different in the matters of Probate and Special Needs Trusts.