NOVEMBER 30, 2009 VOLUME 16, NUMBER 63
Obviously, the death of a family member or close friend will be an emotionally charged moment. Most of us only have to endure the process a handful of times in our entire lives. That means we may be ill-prepared for what needs to be addressed, and extremely distracted and even vulnerable at the very time we need to be at our best.
There are a few legal matters that need to be dealt with, and a myriad of practical issues. Family and friends must be notified, an obituary notice prepared, and funeral arrangements made (or simply implemented, if the decedent was organized enough to have made advance arrangements). Here are a few others to be dealt with right away:
- Pets need to be taken care of. Will someone in the family take responsibility for the cat? She needs to be attended to right away — she should not be left in the house alone, frightened and without adequate food and water.
- Is security at the decedent’s home a concern? Someone should be detailed to turn lights on and off, pick up (and cancel) newspapers and collect the mail every day. Locks may need to be changed, especially if there have been caretakers, neighbors and repair workers in and out of the home.
- The refrigerator needs to be cleaned out, dishes done and put away, and the house generally looked after. If those tasks are left for later, all sorts of problems can arise.
- Mail should be forwarded, but it may not be possible to accomplish that until someone has been formally appointed as Personal Representative of the decedent’s estate. In the meantime, someone can pick up the mail daily while checking on the house.
- Start a log and/or spreadsheet to show all expenditures and time spent on the decedent’s affairs. Even if you do not intend to seek payment later, it may be important to have this information collected — and it is much harder to recreate it later.
- Arrange for a visit to the safe deposit box. In Arizona the bank is no longer required to impound the box’s contents, but it may be that no one is a signer on the box — or that the key can not be located. Look for information about the safe deposit box, and the key, among the decedent’s papers and personal possessions.
- Cut up and return credit cards in the decedent’s name. It is not legal to use them, so there’s no need to keep them around. Do not be tempted to charge funeral expenses or other urgent bills on the credit cards.
What’s missing from this list? Call the lawyer. We don’t want to intimate that we think calling for legal counsel is unimportant (hey, we’re a law office, after all). In most cases, though, it is not among the first things that need to be done. It is probably not necessary to meet with the attorney immediately, but it may well take several days to get an appointment and in the meantime you might be able to get at least some guidance by telephone — so an early call is good, but perhaps not the most important item on your list.
Your circumstances may be different, of course. Perhaps there is a relative who is trying to remove valuable personal property without proper authority. Maybe your loved one lived in a rental unit, and security, cleaning and pets are not a concern. One item, at the head of every list, should be universal: breathe. That is, take a deep breath, ask for assistance from family and friends (most will be happy to pitch in, even if they were not related to, or close to, the decedent), and remember that it is permissible — and even laudable — to grieve as you work through the tasks that must be accomplished.
This is a short list of the most urgent steps to take. In another newsletter we’ll suggest some others, and even provide a checklist.