1. Burial/Funeral Arrangements.  Obtain the decedent’s burial and/or funeral instructions, if any.  It may be most appropriate to contact the family members or have a family meeting to determine the decedent’s burial wishes.  Also, a safe deposit box may contain specific burial and/or funeral instructions.  If the decedent has a safe deposit box, it may be wise to contact the bank to search for these instructions. Advise family members to keep accurate records regarding funeral and other expenses.  After the estate is opened, the family members may be entitled to reimbursement from the estate.

2. Death Certificates.  It is important to provide the funeral director with accurate information for the Death Certificate.  Request ten to twelve (10-12) certified Death Certificates from the funeral director.  Forward at least one certified Death Certificate to your attorney.  Most insurance companies and asset holders require certified Death Certificates when liquidating or transferring assets after the estate has been opened. If the funeral director does not get death certificates for you, then the county coroner’s office or the State office of vital records should have them.

Information the funeral home might request includes: full name of decedent, nationality, Social Security Number, date and place of birth, occupation, marital status.

3. Safe Deposit Box.  Unless you are a joint owner on the safe deposit box, the only contents accessible are the burial instructions and the decedent’s Last Will and Testament, if any.  All other contents must remain in the box until you are appointed as personal representative.  You may need an appointment to open the box.  Contact the bank and speak with the safe deposit box attendant about the bank’s procedures.

When you arrive for your appointment, you will be required to provide identification (i.e. driver’s license) and a certified Death Certificate.  If you do not have one yet, bring along a copy of the Obituary Notice.  The bank may ask you to sign an affidavit stating your relationship to the decedent.

It is probable that two bank officers will accompany you while an inventory is made of the box.  If there is an original Last Will and Testament/Trust Agreement in the box, the bank will automatically send it directly to the Probate Court.  Please ask the bank to make a copy of the Will/Trust and forward a copy to your attorney.

4. Locating Papers. You will need to look for important papers in safe deposit boxes, strongboxes, shoe boxes, lockers, drawers, file cabinets, brief cases, desks, etc. Locate life insurance policies, accidental death policies, home owner’s insurance, bank books, notes payable, deeds, stocks, bonds, Wills, income tax returns, W-2 forms, marriage certificates, Social Security Number, birth certificates of all family members, military discharge papers, vehicle titles and any other documents relating to ownership of valuables.

5. Social Security.  If the decedent was receiving social security benefits, contact the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 and provide them with the date of death.  If there is a surviving spouse, he or she may be entitled to a lump sum benefit.  If this is the case, ask the Social Security Administration to send the surviving spouse the claim forms. (www.ssa.gov/pgm/links_survivor.htm)

You may be required to return social security checks.  The decedent must live through the last day of the month in order to cash that month’s check.  Therefore, if the decedent died on August 15, they are not entitled to the August check and it must be returned (keep in mind that most Social Security beneficiaries are paid a month late).  If the checks are being directly deposited into the decedent’s bank account, the bank will make arrangements for those funds to be returned to the Social Security Administration.  Check with the bank to see that this is done.

6. Veterans Administration.  If the decedent was a veteran, notify the Veterans Administration at 1-800-669-8477 to apply for death benefits.  If the decedent was receiving a pension, advise the Veterans Administration regarding the date of death. (www.vba.va.gov/VBA)

7. Other Retirement Income.  Contact each organization from which the decedent was receiving retirement income or benefits (i.e. railroad, union, etc.) and advise of the decedent’s date of death.  Also, ask if there may be death benefits available and request the forms for completion.

8. Power of Attorney.  Notify parties with Power of Attorney that the power is terminated. A power of attorney is void after the principal (the person who signed it) dies.

9. Contracts.  Do not sign any contracts unless you make a conscious decision to be personally liable on them.  You will not have the authority to contract with for the estate until you are appointed personal representative.

10. Pets.  If the decedent owned a dog, cat, etc., make arrangements with family members and/or neighbors to care for the pet until you are appointed as personal representative.  It may be necessary to board the animal.  The decedent’s estate will pay for all boarding costs after the estate is opened.

11. Payment of Decedent’s Debts.  At this point, you have no authority to pay the decedent’s bill.  Also, you should caution friends and family members against paying the decedent’s debts or obligations.  If anyone is insistent upon payment prior to providing services, or if it is absolutely necessary to pay a bill, i.e. so insurance will not lapse, please speak with your attorney prior to agreeing to the service.

It is wise to contact all creditors to advise them of the decedent’s death and to advise them that their bill will not be paid until a personal representative of the estate is appointed.  Check with creditors to see if any debts carried an insurance rider that would pay the debt in full upon death. Another steps that might be appropriate is running a credit report and notifying all credit agencies of the death.

Equifax: 1-800-685-1111 • www.Equifax.com
Trans Union: 1-800-888-4213 • www.TransUnion.com
Experian: 1-888-397-3742 • www.Experian.com

After you are appointed as personal representative, an estate checking account will be opened, and all bills will be paid from this account.  The term “bills” includes expenses owing for funeral, utilities, insurance, mortgages, credit cards, etc.

In most cases you will have a period of time (usually 6 months) to settle creditor claims. During that period, creditors cannot require you to make any payments. The purpose for this rule is to give the personal representative time to determine whether there is enough money to pay all of the creditors. If there is not enough money to pay all of the creditors, then the law provides a system for determining which creditors get paid and how much they get paid.

If the decedent was on Medicaid, then Medicaid may make a claim against the estate. This is called “Estate Recovery.” The State has very broad authority to seize property to recoup what it invested in a person’s care, but there are limitations. You should speak with a lawyer before paying any claim made by the State.

12. Checks Payable to the Decedent.  All checks received in the mail or made payable to the decedent should be held and not deposited into any account until the estate is opened.  These checks will be used to open an estate checking account. After the Estate is opened, it will need an EIN for its accounts. See http://www.irs.gov/Businesses/Small-Businesses-&-Self-Employed/Apply-for-an-Employer-Identification-Number-(EIN)-Online.

13. Asset Information.  Review the decedent’s records and paperwork to determine assets on hand and the potential ownership of each asset.  Provide your attorney with bank statements, brokerage statements, real estate documents, insurance statements, abstracts for real estate, certificates of title for real estate, certificates of title for automobiles, business agreements, military records, membership cards, employment information and any other documents that would indicated the existence of an asset.  At this time, supply the estate’s attorney with copies of the decedent’s bills.  Also, obtain information about medical or disability insurance which the decedent may have.

14. Homestead.  Secure the decedent’s home.  Make sure that all locks are working, determine who is holding keys and contact your attorney if there are any security issues.  Terminate home deliveries and place a hold on the mail at the post office.  It is best not to allow anyone to take items from the home until the probate is commenced and you have the authority to release those items. Contact the insurance company to make sure there are no problems with coverage if the home is vacant for a while.

15. Life Insurance. Locate all life insurance policies on the life of the decedent. You will need to get a claim form from each company and submit the requested information to file a claim. A good search for term policies is reviewing the decedent’s check book for premium payments. Whole life policies might be more difficult to find, but most people receive mail from insurance companies at least once per year. Contact employers (and sometimes former employers) to determine whether there are employer provided policies.

16. Taxes.  When reviewing the decedent’s records, retain copies of the decedent’s income tax returns for the past three years along with any gift tax returns that have been filed.  Your attorney will need a copy of these documents.  Obtain the accountant’s name and address.

17. Heirs.  Prepare a list of the decedent’s heirs and include names, addresses, birth dates and social security numbers.  The Court requires this information when probating an estate.  This information is required by the Court when opening the estate. This list is not limited to the persons named in the Will and must include the spouse, all children and the children of any deceased children. If there are none, then it must include the closest living relatives. These are the people who could contest a Will as invalid to the law requires that they be given notice of the probate proceeding.

If you need assistance determining the decedent’s heirs, you should either contact an attorney to help you with probate, or you should use a worksheet such as the following: https://gaprobate.org/forms/determination%20of%20heirs%20worksheet.pdf.

18. Personal Representative’s Fees.  A personal representative may charge a fee for probating an estate.  If you are going to charge a fee, you should keep a log of time that you spend reviewing the decedent’s records, securing the home, etc.  Also, if it is necessary for you to personally make payment for funeral, flowers, etc., keep your receipts so that reimbursement can be made from the estate after it is opened.

19. Assistance. If you would like our assistance with probate or any other matters, please call us at (706) 428-0888.

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THIS IS GENERAL INFORMATION.  IT DOES NOT CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE FOR A PARTICULAR SITUATION.  DEPENDING ON CIRCUMSTANCES, THERE MAY BE ADDITIONAL STEPS YOU SHOULD TAKE. YOU ARE STRONLY ENCOURAGED TO SEEK LEGAL ADVICE AND COUNSEL.