As an Orange County probate attorney, I know the days and weeks following the death of a loved one can be overwhelming.  You may have a funeral or memorial service to plan, important people to contact and a stack of loose ends to tie up. Not to mention, you’re grieving!  Sometimes it’s challenging enough to get out of bed, let alone deal with the required tasks of administering an estate.

Fortunately, knowing where to start and learning how to prioritize things can make a huge difference in preserving your sanity during this difficult time.  Following a checklist will also help to ensure that you don’t overlook any important steps in closing out your loved one’s affairs.

So with that said, I put together a priority list of things to do immediately following the death of a loved one in the state of California.  These steps are in no particular order, but should all be completed as soon as possible after a death occurs:

1.       Secure any property– If your loved one owned a home(s), I would advise you to waste no time in removing the valuables and getting everything locked up tight.  This will not only keep the house safe from criminals and vandals, but it will also help to ensure friends or family members will not start “administering the estate” and taking what they believe to be theirs before the proper time.

2.       Request certified copies of the death certificate You will need a certified copy of the death certificate to claim social security benefits, transfer property, close out bank accounts and handle any other financial affairs.  You can typically order a copy of the death certificate from the funeral home or get a copy from the Orange County Health Care Agency here.

3.       Freeze financial accounts– You’ll want to take an inventory of your loved one’s financial affairs as soon as possible following his or her passing.  Essentially you’ll want to make sure all automatic debits are stopped and a freeze is placed on bank accounts and credit cards that are not jointly owned.  You’ll also want to stop any automatic deposits scheduled to hit the bank account before you officially close it out.

4.       Locate estate planning documents and contact a probate attorney– The steps you must take to administer your loved one’s estate will depend on the documentation he or she had in place at death.  If your loved one did not have a will or only had a will in place, you will need an attorney to assist you in filing with the probate court. If your loved one had a trust in place, you will avoid the court process, but will still need to contact an attorney to ensure the trust is administered properly and all expenses of the estate are paid.

5.       Relocate abandoned pets– If a loved one died leaving pets alone in the house, immediate steps must be taken to relocate the animals with another family member, friend or local shelter.  You may also want to contact your loved one’s attorney to find out if they had legal plans in place to care for their pets upon their passing.

6.       Contact social security– Social security must be notified following the death of a loved one. You should call them at 1-800-772-1213.  Benefits will be stopped upon notification and you can also inquire about surviving benefits for a spouse or child.

7.       Claim important benefits– If your loved one had life insurance or was entitled to death benefits from his or her place of employment, union or civic organization, it’s important to contact such places and find out how to start your claim.

8.       Consider long-term care for the surviving spouse–  If your loved one left behind a surviving spouse who is elderly and unable to live alone, consideration should immediately be given to his or her long-term care. This could mean having the spouse stay with a family member until residency at an assisted living or nursing home facility can be arraigned or hiring in-home health aides who can provide care on a daily basis.

In addition to following the steps above, I also invite you to contact me, your neighborhood Orange County probate lawyer, if you need help sorting through the legalities (including the probate process!) following your loved one’s passing.