The most important legal steps after someone dies

3 min read

Things you need to do immediately after a loved one’s death

  • A legal pronouncement of death is essential before any other steps are taken.

  • Once that document is in hand, request multiple copies of the death certificate.

  • The most recent version of the will must be filed in probate court.

  • If your loved one does not have a will, you must still petition for probate. The court will appoint an administrator.

  • You’ll also need to notify government agencies: the Social Security Administration and the IRS, to begin with.

After someone you love passes away, you’re likely dealing with both your grief and the responsibilities and duties you must tackle in the immediate future. But no matter how prepared you or your loved one was for their departure, you’ll need to take certain legal steps as soon as possible.

The legal requirements you must fulfill on behalf of your loved one can seem confusing. To make matters more complicated, the laws often differ by state. However, there are many consistent rules, and you’ll need to deal with several of them as soon as you can in order to avoid issues later on. 

Keep in mind that most of these tasks involve official paperwork, and it may be helpful to enlist the help of a personal or estate lawyer. However, for the most urgent tasks, it is not difficult to manage on your own.

Immediately after they’ve passed

The first legal document you need to secure is a pronouncement of death. If your loved one died in a hospital or in hospice care, the medical staff will automatically handle this. But if they passed away at home you’ll need to contact a medical professional who can make this pronouncement. Without the legal pronouncement of death, you will not be able to obtain a death certificate, handle the estate properly, or even plan a funeral.

Once that’s taken care of, you can get copies of the death certificate, either through a funeral home or from the county. You’ll need the certificates to take care of many of the legal processes that follow, so make sure you get several copies; depending on the complexity of your loved one’s estate, you’ll want to order anywhere from a dozen to 36.

Filing the will

Legally, if there is a will, you must file the most recent version of it with the local probate court. There are situations in which you can avoid the full probate process, but no matter what, you still need to file the will. Each state has its own laws about how much time you have to file the will once it is found.

If there is no will, you must still petition for probate. Your loved one’s local probate court will have its own processes, but in general you can expect to attend a probate hearing in order to obtain letters of administration, which will allow you to act on behalf of the estate. 

Depending on what your loved one owned, you may need to get an assessment of the value of some of the items in their estate as soon as possible.

Depending on what your loved one owned, you may need to get an assessment of the value of some of the items in their estate as soon as possible, as for tax purposes it is necessary to know their value on the day your loved one died.

Notifying the government

There are certain government agencies that must be notified about your loved one’s death as soon as possible. The most important is the Social Security Administration; if your loved one was receiving benefits and you don’t stop the checks immediately, the executor may be held liable for those payments later. 

The IRS should also be notified, and this can be particularly urgent depending on how close it is to tax day. If taxes are to come due before they can be paid as part of probate, you will likely need to file an extension.

Keep in mind that if you’re overwhelmed by the details, you can always enlist the assistance of a lawyer, whose fees will come out of the estate. While these legal responsibilities are important, you also want to make sure to honor your grief and take care of your mental health by seeking help when you need it.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.