The death of a loved one can be an incredibly difficult experience, and the last thing that most survivors want to think about is how to handle their loved one’s estate. However, it’s important to make sure that your loved one’s last wishes are carried out,and that the appropriate beneficiaries inherit the assets that were intended for them.
The best way to handle this process is to work with an experienced Florida estate administration lawyer. An attorney can help you by clearly explaining what documents you need to gather and whom you need to contact, while also making sure you follow Florida’s specific probate laws. Every estate is different, and your attorney can help you figure out the best and most efficient way to handle yours, but in the meantime you can also look over a basic estate administration checklist. You can find very detailed checklists here, but Wintter& Associates has also put together an easy-to-understand inventory. This is the first part in a three-part series.
First Things First: Gather Information and Important Documents
These are the documents and the basic information you can gather before contacting your attorney or any party who will be administering the estate:
- Full Name of the Decedent. This is the name that appears on their birth certificate.
- Social Security Number of the Decedent.
- Death Certificate Copies. In Florida, short form death certificates (which don’t specify the cause of death) arepublic records and can be easily obtained through the funeral home you are working with or the Health Department in the county where the decedent died. You will most likely need at least two copies: one for the probate proceedings and an additional one for every county where the decedent owned property.
- Financial Documents for Joint Accounts. If your loved one owned any joint assets, such as a house, with their surviving spouse, you’ll need to find official documents proving the joint ownership.
- Funeral Arrangements and Burial Instructions.Look for any documents relating to pre-paid funeral arrangements or memorial service and burial preferences.
- Last Will and Testament. The will and any other estate planning documents will be essential for the distribution of assets.
Next: Make Contact
You will most likely want to reach out to relatives and close friends first to inform them of the death, but afterwards you will also need to contact several organizations:
- Funeral home. You will need to make arrangements for the funeral or memorial service and burial.
- Social Security. They will need to know to cancel any benefits the decedent has been receiving, and they will also have to meet with the surviving spouse to determine if he or she is entitled to any additional benefits.
- Employers. Even if the decedent was retired, you should still contact former employers to see if your loved one had group insurance or other benefits.
- Life Insurance. Typically, you can only request benefit forms from the decedent’s life insurance company if you are the beneficiary. If you are not the beneficiary, contact the person who is and have them call the life insurance company.
- VA or Civil Service Office of Personnel Management. If your loved one was a veteran or employee (either active or retired at the time of death) of the Civil Service, surviving family members may be entitled to certain benefits.
It may be difficult to think about gathering information and making phone calls in the wake of a loved one’s death, but these things need to be done to honor – and legally uphold – your loved one’s last wishes. The good news is that you don’t have to go through this process alone – a probate attorney can be a huge asset in your loved one’s estate administration.
In the next part of this checklist series, we’ll look at the documents that survivors need to gather with the help of their attorney to begin valuing and distributing the decedent’s assets.
About the Author:
Christopher Q. Wintter is the founder of Wintter & Associates, P.A. and a board-certified expert in Trust and Estate matters by the Florida Bar. With more than 24 years’ experience as a practicing attorney, he also serves as an instructor and faculty member for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA)—the nation’s leading provider of legal advocacy skills training to practicing attorneys—and has earned the AV® Preeminent™ rating with LexisNexis Martindale Hubbell. He was also selected for inclusion in Florida Super Lawyers for 2011, 2012 and 2014 in Estate and Trust Litigation.