27 May 2020 | Comment | Article by Eleanor Evans TEP

What to do when someone dies - 8 key steps

It’s not something we like to think about. But, there’s a question we all need to ask ourselves at some point in time: What do I do when someone close to me dies?

If it’s your partner or spouse, or a close relative, or you have been appointed executor in the will, the responsibility to deal with the necessary arrangements could fall to you. 

As the Head of the Trusts and Estates Administration team at Hugh James, I deal with people every day who are grieving and dealing with shock at the loss of a loved one. My team and I take them through the necessary processes and help ease some of the pressure. Through my experience, I’ve come to realise how important it is for people to understand the process well before they’ll ever need to follow it.

Knowing what you need to do before you’re faced with such an anxious and stressful situation, should help you when something like this eventually happens. Here are the 8 key steps you’ll need to take.

Step 1 - Register the death

This must happen within 5 days if the deceased died in England or Wales. You can find your nearest Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages on the government website. You’ll be given a ‘certificate for a burial’ to give to the funeral director, or an application for cremation, which you need to complete and give to the crematorium. The death must be registered by a relative. If no relatives are left, you must be a person who was present at the death, an administrator from the hospital, or the person arranging the funeral. 

Step 2 - Arrange the funeral

You can either used a registered funeral director or arrange this yourself by contacting the Cemeteries and Crematorium Department of your local council. The deceased may have expressed specific funeral wishes in their will, or in a separate letter of wishes, so it’s sensible to review the terms of the will or letter of wishes before arranging the funeral. It’s usually possible to pay the funeral bill from the deceased’s bank accounts, even before probate has been granted. 

If you provide the bank with a copy of the death certificate, and the funeral bill, they will usually pay the undertaker direct. If a solicitor is instructed to deal with the estate, the solicitor can arrange for the funeral to be paid. Some people have funeral plans in place, which are insurance policies they’ve set up to cover the cost of their funeral.  It’s worth checking the deceased’s important papers, to include any papers stored with their will, to see if they have a funeral plan in place. 

Step 3 - Find out if a will was left, and what the terms are

If you don’t know whether there is a will, or where it is stored, check the deceased person’s house for any relevant paperwork.  If the original will is not amongst the deceased’s papers, it may be stored with their bank or solicitor.  Solicitors who prepare wills usually advise people to keep a copy of their will and details of where it is kept, with their important papers. 

If you can’t find the original will, or aren’t sure if it is the last will of the deceased, it may be appropriate to carry out further searches. A specialist solicitor can help with this. Once you’ve found the will, you’ll need to check who the executors are (the people with responsibility for administering the estate) and who is entitled to benefit from the estate.

These days, there’s usually no formal “reading of the will”, but the executors (or solicitors acting on their behalf) will contact the beneficiaries of the estate to let them know about their entitlement.  If no will was left, the intestacy rules will apply. 

Step 4 - Ensure the deceased’s property is secure and insured

If the deceased owned a property and it is now vacant after their death, it’s important to make sure it is locked and secure, and that you know who holds a key.  The household contents insurance may be invalidated once the property is unoccupied, so it may be appropriate to remove valuable items and store them in a safe place.

If items are left as specific gifts in the will, it’s sensible to discuss the removal of these items with family members to make sure everyone agrees with the steps to be taken.

The person with responsibility for the estate should also make sure there is a buildings insurance policy in place.  The insurance company should be contacted and made aware that the property is unoccupied.

The terms of the policy will usually change when a property is unoccupied, and a lower level of cover provided.  There may be conditions attached to the policy; such as a requirement for the property to be visited on a regular basis and the central heating to be placed on a timer, or the property drained down of water.  It’s important to ensure these conditions are complied with, particularly in the winter months when there is a risk that pipes may freeze. 

You may also need to consider cancelling any deliveries, like milk and newspapers, and taking steps to re-home pets.

Step 5 - Inform relevant authorities

The government has a ‘Tell Us Once’ service which allows you to inform all the relevant government departments such as the Department for Work and Pensions, HM Revenue and Customs and the DVLA.

You will need to tell banks, utility companies, and landlords or housing associations yourself.  If probate is required (see step 7 below) and solicitors will be dealing with the estate, you may wish to ask the solicitors to deal with this for you

You can use the online Death Notification Service to inform banks and financial institutions. Again, if you instruct solicitors, they will usually deal with this step.

You can use the Bereavement Register to remove the deceased’s details from mailing lists, to stop unwanted marketing post being sent to the deceased. 

Step 6 - Check your benefits and pensions

You may be entitled to benefits, like the Bereavement Support Payment or Guardian’s Allowance. So, it’s worth checking your eligibility.

You should also make contact with the deceased’s personal or workplace pension providers. 

Step 7 - Find out if probate is required

If you are not the executor of the will, you will need to ensure the executor is notified of the deceased passing away.  The executor will then deal with the estate in accordance with the terms of the will. 

If you are the executor (either appointed on your own or alongside other family members), or the person entitled to deal with the estate under the intestacy laws (the administrator), then you will need to find out if a grant of probate or letters of administration is required.

A grant will be required if the deceased owned a property in their sole name, or if the deceased had cash in bank accounts valued over £5,000.  In some circumstances, banks will be prepared to close the deceased’s bank accounts without a grant of probate if the balance is higher than £5,000; the limit varies depending on the bank. 

If you are unsure if probate will be required, you may wish to discuss this with a solicitor. 

Step 8 - Seek advice and support

There are experts who can guide you through this process.

We have a strong track record in supporting people through the probate and estate administration process, so please do get in touch if you’d like us to help you.

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About the Author:

Eleanor Evans is Head of our Trusts and Estates Administration Department. She is a specialist in wills, probate, tax and trusts, and is a full member of STEP (the Society of Trusts and Estates Practitioners). 

Eleanor’s clients include household names, such as high street banks, several building societies and a nationwide network of funeral directors.  Her team acts for individuals and corporate executors and trustees. 

The cases dealt with in Eleanor’s team range in complexity from straightforward grant of probate applications, to multi-million pound estates with overseas assets, business or agricultural property and contentious aspects.   

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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