Where to start when a loved one has died and you’re in charge of their affairs


The already difficult process of losing a loved one can be made even harder if you’re the person left in charge of their affairs. It can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. Relax, we’re here to help. Below are some steps you can take to start putting affairs in order. Breaking a daunting task down into smaller steps that can be accomplished quickly is a good place to start.

Know that you should speak with a probate attorney before you take charge of personal property or distribute any money belonging to the person has passed away (called a “decedent”). It’s a good idea to get an overview of what steps will be necessary to settle the estate, and whether the court needs to be involved. Some estates go through a court process called “probate” in which the court supervises the transfer of the decedent’s money and property. Other estates, such as those involving assets held with a beneficiary, a co-owner, or in a trust, may not require probate.

Below are some of the basic steps you can take before you meet with an attorney. Keep in mind that some of these steps may not be necessary in your situation, and that if you have questions about what to do, it may be best to wait to speak with your attorney.

For these steps we have provided a handy list below. If you’d like a printable checklist version, please download our PDF document.

Review Important Documents:

Funeral Arrangements

It’s a good idea to review the decedent’s papers to find out what their wishes regarding burial, cremation, and celebration of life are. Some people have left written instructions or purchased a prepaid burial policy. Instructions of this type are most commonly given to a loved one or left with a will, trust, or other important legal documents.

Order extra death certificates. The company that handles final arrangements typically informs the state of the death, and can order death certificates for you. It’s a good idea to get several death certificates. Oregon has two types of death certificate, commonly called “long-form” and “short-form”. Long form death certificates include the cause of death. These are typically needed if the decedent had life insurance. A short-term death certificate does not include a cause of death and therefore is more private. If the decedent owned real property, a short-term death certificate will be necessary to transfer title.

Estate Planning Documents

If the decedent prepared estate planning documents such as a power of attorney, will or trust, it’s a good idea to locate the original documents, which your attorney will want to review. Not everyone has a trust or will, so don’t worry if you can’t find one. If you or anyone else was helping the decedent manage their assets using a power of attorney, keep in mind that it becomes invalid upon their passing.

Ownership, Asset, and Debt Documentation

If you have access to the decedent’s paperwork, find deeds, titles, and recent account statements for their assets. Keep copies of their recent bills for things like utilities, mortgage, car and property insurance. It will be necessary to have an understanding of the decedent’s assets and liabilities in order to distribute their estate.

Benefit Documentation

Consider whether the decedent had life insurance, accidental death, or other policies. If you find documentation, make a copy to review with your attorney.

Social Security and Pensions

If the funeral home has not already notified Social Security, contact the Social Security Administration and inform them of the death. This will prevent overpayment of benefits. If the decedent had other regular income during their lifetime (such as payments from PERS or a pension) contact those entities and inform them of the death.

Secure Keys

Locate keys for the decedent’s home, cars, and safe deposit or PO boxes. If anyone is driving a car owned by the decedent, ask them to return it.

Secure the Home

Ask anyone with a key to give it back. If the home is vacant, consider installing a security system or having someone regularly visit the house. If the decedent’s home will be vacant for some time, discuss changing the locks with your attorney. It may be a good idea to have someone stay at the home periodically to prevent break-ins and squatters.

Electronic Data

We all have a lot of sensitive personal data on our electronic devices. Secure the decedent’s phone, computer, laptop, tablets, etc.

Beneficiary Designated Assets

If the decedent had an asset with a beneficiary designation in place, the named beneficiary does not have to wait for probate to claim the asset. If you find beneficiary designations among paperwork, you can notify the beneficiary (they will likely need a death certificate).

Credit Cards

Secure the decedent’s credit cards and consider notifying the credit bureaus of the death. Do not pay the decedent’s credit card or other revolving accounts without first consulting your estate attorney. Creditors are paid according to a schedule that assigns priority levels to debt. Things like spousal support, child support, and unpaid taxes are given a high priority. Credit cards are given a very low priority and may not need to be paid at all.

Cancellations and Refunds

If the decedent had subscriptions resulting in recurring charges, notify the service provider and request that the service be stopped and any refund issued. Note that you should not cancel insurance policies.

An experienced probate attorney can assist you with a loved one’s estate. Contact the probate attorneys with the Law Offices of Nay & Friedenberg LLC in Portland, Oregon at (503) 245-0894 to set an appointment.