What Do You Do When A Loved One Dies?

When a loved one dies, the emotional response can be overwhelming. Paperwork and details are the last thing people want to think of - well, most people.  There are all the choices to be made around the person. Burial or cremation? What kind of service should we have?  Who gets invited? These decisions come fast and furious.  Then just when you think you have gotten past the most important part comes the realization that winding up a person’s life is not simple, especially if they haven’t updated their estate plan in a long time or worse – don’t have one.  In my opinion, one of the most loving things you can do for your family members is to have a an estate plan in place during your lifetime and update it every 3-5 years.

A few things to help guide you in the initial stages:

  1. Was there a will or a trust? If so, find it and ensure it is the latest one. Check with the attorney who drafted it or seek out legal counsel to assist you to determine that. When you are a member of the Trusts and Estate section of the State Bar, as I am, we regularly send emails out to the other members to find out if there is a Will that is unknown to the relatives; and/or if the version found is the latest one.

  2. If there was a will, who is appointed to administer their estate.  In Arizona this role is called a Personal Representative. Other states call is an Executer.  This person is the one who is authorized to act. Not the agent under a Power of Attorney, which is a confusion I often see. Powers of Attorney govern the living.
  3. The deceased may have had Funeral & Burial Instructions that are a guide to the Personal Representative of what they want to happen at their death. If they don’t have Funeral and Burial Instructions, then the Personal Representative decides all the details: if they are to be cremated, buried in a wooden box or a fancy coffin, and where their remains will rest, amongst other personal and intricate decisions.
  4. You must have a death certificate to bury or cremate a person. Sometimes a hospital can take several weeks to submit the Death Registration to the Department of Health, which means they can not issue a Certificate of Death. While distressing, there is little that can be done beside bugging the doctor and the hospital.
  5. If the deceased served in the military, they will likely have the option of having a Funeral Honor Guard attend their service. The DD Form 214 will be necessary for this or else you will have to go to the Veteran’s Department of Affairs to get confirmation of their service and honorable discharge.
  6. There are many things to attend to right from the death for the Personal Representative or those assisting.  Some include ensuring that no one is accessing the deceased’s house, accounts and other assets. Gathering bills and liabilities is also essential. Many of the tasks require attention to detail and everyone has an opinion on what should happen— adding stress to what is already an emotional time.
  7. Then there is the Probate process.  While Arizona provides sample forms online so that individuals could file the dozen or more forms themselves to become appointed as a Personal Representative without legal representation, it can be a daunting process with significant legal liability for the person appointed as the Personal Representative.  
  8. If there is a will, the Personal Representative will be named, and this document needs to be admitted into probate court. If there is no will, then Arizona statutes provide an order of priority of the persons who can be appointed as the Personal Representative.  
  9. The Probate court will then approve or reject the appointment of the Personal Representative after the submission of the various forms that include: an online course, acceptance of the responsibilities, Notices prepared to Creditors and Heirs, Bond or waiver of bond by affected family members, etc.


Now the administrative process of accounting for a person’s life to their creditors and heirs begins. We will discuss this process in our next newsletter. But in the meantime, should you have any questions in relation to a family member or with changes needed to your estate plan, please give our office a call. 

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