What Are the First Steps to Take After a Loved One Dies?

person in a black long sleeve top holding white lilies putting one hand on a brown casket.

Posted by heritagelaw on Jul 15, 2021 in Blog, Wills & Estate

When someone you love dies, it can be difficult to navigate the process of grieving while handling the personal and legal details following that death – especially if the responsibility of doing so falls directly on you.

The amount of work it takes to settle a loved one’s affairs can be quite a shock – but it doesn’t have to cause undue stress in your life.

Here is a guide that will walk you through the first steps to take after a loved one dies:

What Documents Should I Collect?

After a loved one dies, important papers must be collected in order to settle the deceased’s final affairs in order to complete the probate or trust settlement process.

Here are some of the important documents you should have copies of:

  • Account statements
  • Life insurance policies
  • Beneficiary designations
  • Deeds for real estate
  • Automobile titles
  • Stock and bond certificates
  • Corporate, LLC, or partnership documents
  • Contracts (leases, loans, etc.)
  • Business license
  • Income tax returns
  • Prenuptial or postnuptial agreements
  • Loans
  • Leases
  • Bills (utilities, cell phone, credit card, mortgage, etc.)

If the deceased had an estate plan, copies or originals of those documents are also required. These include the last will and testament as well as a copy of any amendments made to the will.

Lastly, you will also need to have a copy of the death certificate.

What Information Should I Look For in the Will?

Wills are written with very specific legal language to ensure that the deceased’s final wishes are followed to the letter. This can, however, make it difficult to understand the terms of the will.

Here is what you should look for in your loved one’s will:

  • Personal declarations: This is basic information that defines the will-maker’s closest family members and the references to them, such as “my children” or “my partner”. 
  • Nomination of the executor: This section names the executor of the will as well as any potential alternates.
  • Gifts: This clause lists items or property that is to go to specific beneficiaries such as personal effects and sums of money.
  • Children’s guardians: If children under 18 are left behind by the deceased, and there is no surviving parent, the will-maker can appoint a personal guardian for them.
  • Trusts: A trust is an arrangement under which one person controls property and manages it for another. This is typically set up for children under the age of 18.
  • Payment of debts and taxes: The executor is responsible for paying any debts via the estate. The deceased may specify which source of funds to use for debts and taxes.
  • No-contest clause: A no-contest clause discourages beneficiaries from contesting the will in court. If they do, they receive nothing.

Perhaps the most important piece of information to look for in your loved one’s will is the naming of the executor. The executor is the individual responsible for carrying out the wishes of the will.

What Calls Should I Make First?

sad woman holds phone to ear while looking out a window

If your loved one died at home, you will need to first call 911 and have them taken to a hospital in order to pronounce the death. If they died at the hospital, this is all taken care of.

You will then need to call family members and need to find out if the deceased had any pre-arranged funeral plans. If the family is unaware of any plans, you can always contact a legal representative of the deceased.

When it comes to the funeral, a funeral director can help you make the necessary arrangements including transferring the body to a funeral home and handling final arrangements.

After the funeral, it’s time to start canceling your loved one’s accounts such as their internet, cell phone, Netflix, etc. You should also notify their life insurance company, banks and financial institutions, financial advisors, and credit agencies.

The deceased will also need to have their driver’s license canceled.

Credit card accounts and life insurance policies will also have to be terminated. You’ll need to provide a copy of the death certificate to close these accounts.

What Do I Do If My Loved One Didn’t Have a Will?

If your loved one died without leaving a will they are considered to have died “intestate”. This means that the government must use provincial laws to decide how to distribute the estate and appoint an executor.

Someone can apply to the courts to be appointed as the administrator of the estate and perform the same duties as the executor once they are granted permission. If nobody applies for this role, the court will appoint a public trustee.

The province of Alberta uses the Wills and Succession Act to distribute the estate in the following order:

  • Spouse, but no children – 100% to spouse
  • Spouse and children (with spouse) – 100% to spouse
  • Spouse and children (not spouse’s children) – 50% to spouse, rest divided among children
  • No spouse, surviving children – divided equally among children
  • No spouse, no children – divided equally among deceased’s parents
  • No spouse, no surviving children – divided equally among grandchildren
  • No surviving parents, no spouse, no children – divided equally among siblings
  • No surviving siblings – divided equally among nieces and nephews

When your loved one dies with no will, it’s important to speak with a lawyer to ensure that you understand the next steps that need to be followed.

A Checklist of Responsibilities After Death

Figuring out what to do next when a loved one dies can be a confusing and emotional time. To simplify the process, here is a checklist of responsibilities:

  • Get a legal pronouncement of death.
  • Notify friends and family.
  • Secure the deceased’s property (lock their house, car, etc.).
  • Find someone to take care of their pets.
  • Figure out their funeral plan and make arrangements.
  • Notify their employer.
  • Get a copy of the death certificate.
  • Locate their will and take it to probate.
  • Cancel their services and close their accounts.
  • Delete their social media accounts or switch them to a memorial.
  • Close their email accounts.

Dealing with the death of a loved one is a huge responsibility with many details to take care of – and a task that can’t be done alone.

You’ll need the help of others, including knowledgeable lawyers who can walk you through the process and eliminate any confusion.

For more information about the first steps to take after a loved one dies, please do not hesitate to contact our lawyers at Heritage Law. We can give you the advice and support you need to get through this difficult time.