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After Death, Legal and Financial Responsibilities

Whenever you are handling financial matters be prepared to have handy the vital statistical information of the decedent; i.e., date of birth, place of birth, date of death, social security number, dates of marriages or divorces, children or other family members names and contact information.

If the decedent was retired and collecting Social Security benefits, the local Social Security office needs to be contacted so benefits can be stopped. Any checks received after the date of death must be returned, even if the check was deposited electronically in the decedent's bank account.

Collect the decedent's bills and documentation regarding any monies owed. Check for credit cards in the decedent's wallet or purse to verify that all creditors have been found. Remember to identify all health care service providers related to last illness and related care.

Identify the decedent's utilities, cell phones, cable or satellite service, magazines and other periodic services. These services need to be cancelled. However, basic utilities need to remain in service on the decedent's house until sold or distributed. Contact the decedent's home insurance agent to verify how much coverage exists or if a rider needs to be purchased.

These steps should give you the basic information needed to assess the liabilities of the decedent. These bills and expenses will need to be paid by the decedent's assets. Even if the decedent's accounts or property are held as joint tenants with right of survivorship or "pay on death," the decedent's share of the joint accounts must be used to pay the debts.

Collect information regarding the decedent's financial and investment accounts. Look for checking accounts, savings accounts, CDs, or electronic stock accounts, IRAs, 401(k)s, pensions and other retirement accounts. To get a complete list, look through the decedent's wallet or purse, any file cabinets, the incoming mail and prior tax returns.

For accounts titled as joint tenancy with right of survivorship or if there is a "pay on death" ("POD") or "transfer on death" ("TOD") designation, then in most cases a death certificate can be presented to the financial institution and the funds will be distributed to the surviving joint tenant or the named beneficiary.

When ordering death certificates order many, because you will need one for each account, each piece of property and a couple for government use.

For accounts titled in the name of the decedent without a joint tenant with right of survivorship or without a "POD" or "TOD" designation, if the total value of such financial accounts and personal property of the decedent exceeds $50,000 then a probate court proceeding will be necessary. Probate is court process required for the distribution of a decedent's assets. If the total is $50,000 or less, then the accounts can be distributed through a small estate affidavit.

Before distributing any assets, the decedent's will or trust should be located. If the decedent does not have a will or trust, there are statutes which designate the distribution of the decedent's assets. If there is a trust, then assets will need to be retitled to the successor trustee and distributed. If there is not a trust, then a probate may be necessary based on the total value of assets as described above.

For real property which is titled in the name of the decedent, where there is no joint tenant with right of survivorship, a trust or beneficiary deed, and if the total value exceeds $50,000, then a probate will be necessary. This $50,000 total does not include personal property, such as financial accounts or tangible, touchable personal property.

Where there is a joint tenant with right of survivorship or beneficiary deed, a death certificate needs to be recorded with the appropriate county recorder in order to transfer title.

If the property is titled in the name of a trust, the successor trustee will need to take control of the property and distribute it according to the terms of the trust.

Handling the financial and legal responsibilities of a decedent can take a great deal of time on a day to day basis. Many times most of distribution can be done with in four to 12 months. Sometimes it takes longer or there are obstacles that arise. This article and the prior two are designed only to give the highlights of responsibilities and consultation with an attorney or accountant is highly recommended.