When Someone Dies in Arizona

When a loved one dies, it can be a chaotic and stressful time for a family. Are you confused about what to do? Or maybe you are feeling overwhelmed? If so, you’re not alone. Below is a list of immediate things to take care of when someone dies. After that, contact a Probate and Trust Attorney to help guide you through the process. (We would love to be that attorney.) This will allow you to take the time to grieve. The task of handling your loved one’s final affairs can be daunting. This is even more so when it involves probate.

Below is a section called “What to Do Within 24 Hours When Someone Dies in Arizona.” If applicable, that’s the first place to start.

CAUTION !!!

This article is made available by Sudden Wealth Protection Law, PLC for educational purposes. It provides general information and a general understanding of the law. It does not provide specific legal advice.

Please contact a Probate Lawyer if you want legal advice. We would love to be your attorney.

CLICK HERE TO TALK TO A PROBATE LAWYER

If your loved one just died, get started on the following list. Everything else can wait until you have talked to us.

What to Do Within 24 Hours When Someone Dies in Arizona

You are grief-stricken and overwhelmed. Where do you start? What do you do? Here are some checklists to help you get organized. Remember that you don’t have to do everything yourself. You can delegate tasks to others.

  • If you just discovered that someone has died, call 911. Mention that someone died. They will send a first responder.
  • Arrange for the care of any dependents.
  • If the deceased person had pets, arrange for their immediate care.
  • Go to the deceased person’s home with a video recorder or smart phone and take a video of the personal property. Open the cabinets and closets and document the contents. Record the contents of the garage. Document everything. You would be surprised how many family arguments occur because someone accuses someone else of having stolen personal property (jewelry, coins, etc.) immediately after someone died.
  • Remove and safeguard any valuables from the deceased person’s home. Keep these items separate from your personal property. If there are only smaller valuables, you put them in a box in a secure location. If necessary, rent a storage unit. But don’t co-mingle! For example, do not mix the deceased person’s jewelry with your jewelry. Keep the items safe and separate from your personal belongings.
  • If the home is now vacant, secure it and take steps to make it appear to be occupied. For example, put lamps on timers. Make sure any other vacant properties are secured. If the wrong people discover that your home is vacant, they can break in and steal copper pipes and other items that can be sold for cash. (Yes, we’ve seen this happen.)
  • Contact a funeral home to take your loved one into their care. They can arrange for cremation or funeral arrangements. The funeral home will order Certificates of Death from the state bureau or other department.
  • Related to the last point, locate any estate planning documents. Your loved one may have left an estate planning binder. You are looking for something called Funeral and Burial Instructions, or maybe Health Care Power of Attorney. Try to figure out if your loved one left any written instructions about being buried or cremated, and other last wishes.
  • Alert family members and close friends. The most thoughtful way is to do this by phone. However, if you have a large family, you can do it with a text, email, or direct message on social media. After you have notified the close family members, and after you have secured the deceased person’s property, then you can choose to post something on social media.
  • Notify the deceased’s person’s employer, if applicable.
  • Notify the local police department if the deceased person’s home is vacant. They will periodically drive by and check for signs of a break in.

Next, Choose a Probate Attorney

When someone dies, the first step is probably to figure out who should oversee making decisions and administering the deceased person’s estate or trust. The job of hiring a lawyer may fall to you if:

  • The deceased person named you as personal representative (“executor”) in the will
  • The deceased person did not leave a will
  • The will did not name a personal representative
  • The named personal representative is dead or otherwise unavailable, or
  • You believe that the existing personal representative or probate attorney isn’t doing a good job.

If you think someone else should be in charge, have them contact us at 602-443-4888. Or just forward this page to them and have them contact us.

Assuming you are a logical person to be making decisions, your next step is to find a good probate or estate administration lawyer. (If you don’t know who should be in charge, just contact us and we will help you figure out the next steps and identify who should be in charge.)

See the next section to figure out what kind of probate lawyer you need.

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Your first question is, “What kind of probate lawyer do I need?”

Generally, there are two types of probate lawyers. Transactional probate attorneys handle the administrative side of probates. Probate litigators represent clients in probate lawsuits where the parties are involved in court proceedings. Some lawyers do both, but most of them tend to specialize in one area or the other.

Hire a transactional probate attorney if you simply want to start the probate process. Lawyers with expertise in trusts and estate planning may also be good at transactional probate matters. On the other hand, look for a litigator in any of these situations:

  • If you want to challenge the will;
  • If you are unhappy with the way the personal representative or the current attorney is handling probate; or
  • If you expect any other legal battle over the estate, look for a litigator.

You’ll want to hire an attorney who regularly handles probate matters. Yet, you also want an attorney with some broad experience. Such an experienced attorney will know whether other areas of law are relevant. This can help keep you out of hot water. For example, if the deceased person had extensive real estate holdings, get a lawyer with some knowledge of real property law.

Our law firm has both transactional probate attorney and probate litigators. 

CLICK HERE TO TALK TO A PROBATE LAWYER

They Focus on This Type of Law

You are looking for an attorney who is an expert, not someone who dabbles. You are familiar with the old saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Some attorneys practice what’s called “Door Law.” They will take any case that walks in the door. They will handle DUIs, divorces, personal injury, business disputes, and probate. The problem with this kind of attorney is that they are not familiar with the Rules of Probate Procedure. They often file things with the court that don’t make sense. You end up losing time and money in the process. They are also not familiar this complicated area of law. You may end up making a mistake (or worse, being held personally liable) as a result.

This is what we do. We help people plan and protect estate matters. Click the link below and get help.

CLICK HERE TO TALK TO A PROBATE LAWYER

Flat Fees

Most probates and trust administrations are routine. That’s why we charge most of our clients a flat fee. That way you know what the cost is before you start. However, there are a few types of cases that the probate court requires that we charge hourly for. In those cases, we will be completely transparent with you about the expected costs and fees.

Established Process

Working with a lawyer can be frustrating. You’re not familiar with the process. You don’t know what to expect. And frankly, most law firms do not have systems and procedures in place to guide you through the process. However, we do. We will guide you through the process in the most efficient way possible. You will have scheduled check-ins so that you are kept informed of the next steps.

What to Do Next When Someone Dies

After you have taken care of the most pressing matters (above), here are some additional action items.

  • Notify the Personal Representative of your loved one’s will that your loved one died. If applicable, also notify the trustee of your loved one’s trust.
  • Arrange for the disposal of any perishables left in the deceased person’s home, such as food, refrigerated items, and trash.
  • Locate your loved one’s estate planning documents. Give a copy to the named Personal Representative (if applicable) and trustee (if applicable). Give a copy to the probate lawyer.
  • Contact your minister if you plan on having a service. Schedule a date for the service.
  • Consider placing an obituary in the local newspaper or paper in your loved one’s hometown.
  • Notify religious, fraternal, and civic organizations that your loved one was a member of and provide service information, if applicable.
  • Alert the Post Office to forward the deceased’s mail. Normally the mail should be forwarded to the named Personal Representative or trustee of the deceased person’s trust. If you are not 100% sure of what to do, talk to your probate lawyer. You can start a family fight if you have the mail forwarded to you, and then you later find out it should have been forwarded to someone else.
  • Locate the deceased loved one’s important documents:

❑ Will

❑ Birth certificate

❑ Social Security card

❑ Marriage license

❑ Military discharge papers (DD-214) if applicable

❑ Deed to burial property

❑ Copy of funeral prearrangements

❑ Life insurance policies

❑ Compile the following information that the funeral home will need in order to finalize the death certificate:

❑ Deceased’s first, middle, and last name

❑ Deceased’s Maiden Name (if applicable)

❑ Deceased’s Home Address

❑ Deceased’s Social Security Number

❑ Deceased’s Date of Birth

❑ Deceased’s Date of Death

❑ Deceased’s Age

❑ Race/Ethnicity

❑ Marital Status

❑ Spouse’s first and last name

❑ Deceased’s Place of Birth (City and State)

❑ Deceased’s Father’s Name

❑ Deceased’s Father’s City and State of Birth

❑ Deceased’s Mother’s Name

❑ Deceased’s Mother’s City and State of Birth

IF A VETERAN:

❑ Entered Service Date

❑ Entered Service Place

❑ Service Number

❑ Separated from Service Date

❑ Separated from Service Place

❑ Grade, Rank or Rating

❑ Organization and Branch of Service

Before the Funeral

  • If your loved one left funeral and burial instructions, give a copy to the funeral home. Otherwise, if you can’t find funeral and burial instructions, ask any family, friends, or the deceased person’s attorney about the deceased person’s wishes (regarding funeral, disposition of remains, etc.). Maybe your loved one shared his or her plans with them. If you know what cemetery your loved one wanted to be buried at, call and ask if they purchased pre-paid funeral arrangement such as a plot, casket, and headstone.
  • If the deceased person’s address is in the obituary or findable online, and depending on where the home is located, consider hiring a security company to monitor the residence and any other vacant properties. Vacant homes in the Phoenix area are prone to getting broken into by people looking for copper pipes or other things that can be sold for cash.

Crisis Intervention

When a death occurs, emotions run high.  If you have any reason to suspect that someone’s grieving is out of control or may lead to physical harm, seek help immediately.  You may obtain help by contacting the police.  There are also nonprofit organizations that deal with crisis situations.  The organizations can refer you to other services.  If you are concerned about someone’s immediate wellbeing, don’t leave them alone or let them drive.  Carefully monitor their use of alcohol, sedatives, and other drugs.  When someone arrives to assist you, make sure he or she is aware of your concerns and disclose any drug or alcohol use.

Medical Examiners

If someone dies in a hospital, hospice, or similar facility, the staff will be able to determine whether the medical examiner should be contacted. They will also provide a legal pronouncement of death, and can assist in contacting the funeral home of your choice.

If the death was expected and the person was admitted to a hospice or hospital, but death occurs at home, contact the hospice or doctor to ask what to do.

If the death was unexpected, call 911.  The police and/or paramedics will respond.  The police or paramedics will coordinate with the county medical examiner, who will take charge of the body.  Do not move the body unless it is in a dangerous place.  The county medical examiner or police will release the body to the funeral home.

Autopsy

The opening and examination of the body are normally ordered by the medical examiner in cases of death that occurred unexpectedly or when the individual was not receiving ongoing care by a physician.  This is necessary to determine the exact cause of death and often aids in medical research.  Once completed and after the body is clothed, it should not be apparent that there has been an autopsy.

What if the Death Occurs While Traveling?

If death occurs in a public place or while your loved one was traveling, call the police.  The deceased person’s body will be transported to a hospital where a physician or medical examiner will be summoned.  Then notify a funeral director of the death.  If you are traveling in the United States, ask a local funeral director to contact the funeral director whom you wish to use in your hometown.  The two funeral directors will arrange to have the remains transported.  If you are traveling outside the United States, you should contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for assistance to make arrangements for local burial or to return the remains to the United States.  (The U.S. Department of State List of Embassies and Consulates is available at www.usembassy.gov.)

Organ Donations

You may be asked to donate all or some of the deceased’s organs and tissues for transplantation, medical research, or education.  The deceased may have made that decision for you by signing a donor card or indicating so in a health care power of attorney.  Most states, including Arizona, allow individuals to register to be organ donors through the state driver’s licensing office so that a symbol indicated donor status will be placed on a driver’s license.

If the deceased has named a recipient for donated organs, contact that organization and make certain that it will accept a donation.  Otherwise, any guardian or health care attorney-in-fact, the surviving spouse, or other listed relations may make the decision under the Arizona Uniform Anatomical Gifts Act.  If you want to know who would be interested in a donation, contact Donate Life Arizona at contact.us@dnaz.org or call 602-241-5550.

The decision to donate organs must be made quickly since organs deteriorate quickly.  Donations of heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, and kidneys must be made within 12 hours of death and are usually coordinated in the hospital with the agency while the person is alive.  Donations of tissue, eyes, bones, skin, and heart valves usually must be made within 24 hours of death.  The hospital will discuss organ donor ship with the family if death appears imminent.  You may be able to donate tissues even though the deceased was considered too old or sick to donate organs.

It should cost nothing to donate organs.  The organ procurement organization should pay all expenses.

Donating organs should not delay the funeral.  It also should not prevent having an open casket since the deceased is usually not disfigured by a donation. 

Taking Care of Survivors

The death of a loved one can be challenging for the survivors. For the one who died, his or her problems are over.  However, the survivors’ problems may have only begun. 

Below we will explain how you can help the survivors as quickly as possible.

Getting Money for the Spouse and Family

Death often comes at the worst time financially.  Cash will be in high demand for funeral arrangements, travel, gatherings of family and friends, bills, and daily maintenance.  Some sources of cash that belonged to the deceased loved one are more available than others and some sources have tax penalties attached, requiring advice and planning.

The first sources to be considered are savings and checking accounts that belonged to the deceased person. If the person seeking withdrawal is a co-owner, no death certificate or court order is needed to withdraw funds.  If the person seeking funds is not a co-owner, all financial institutions will require some verification of the death and your right to the funds.  Powers of attorney that allowed the agent-in-fact to access accounts are no longer effective upon death; you should not use a power of attorney after the principal’s death to access accounts. Probate proceedings may be commenced promptly to allow access to cash in the deceased’s accounts.

The next fastest sources of money are unpaid wages or employment death benefits, which may be payable directly to a surviving spouse.  Be careful to save enough of this money for living expenses for at least two months, since it may take that long to collect funds from remaining sources.

The remaining sources of money will require more time and paperwork.  Life insurance will require certified copies of the death certificates, claim forms, company processing time, and possibly birth certificates of the beneficiaries or court arrangements if the beneficiaries are minors.  If the insurance is payable to the deceased’s estate, probate may be necessary, and the personal representative will need to sign the claim forms.

Retirement benefits are normally paid through the employer’s personnel department, employee’s union or through a third-party plan administrator.  To receive benefits, you must provide a death certificate.  The earliest you can expect funds from this source is one week after getting a death certificate.  This is true for benefits for persons who were employed or who were already drawing a pension.  Getting funds from an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is quicker in that you can deal directly with the IRA sponsor.  However, a death certificate is still needed. 

All withdrawals from pension and IRA accounts have tax consequences, some serious.  Contact an attorney, accountant or other specialist in pension and IRA matters before withdrawing the money.

Selling assets takes time and legal authority to sell.  This should be one of the last sources of cash. 

The last option for obtaining cash is borrowing.  Until a clear picture of the income and liquid reserves is known, avoid getting into more debt.  Where insufficient funds are available such that advancements are made, receipts should be maintained for reimbursement from the personal representative or any other person who loans funds to the deceased loved one’s estate to pay immediate expenses.

Court proceedings during probate can arrange for funds in a lump sum or in monthly payments.  Monthly support can be paid to the spouse or to a guardian for the support of minor children if there is no spouse.  Any acknowledged child of the deceased is entitled to apply for this source of support.  Other dependents who are family members may also apply, but the reward is based upon necessity and the discretion of the court.

Social Security and Veterans Death Benefits will take longer and require specific forms and documentation of service records, death certificates, etc.

Some pension, social security or trust income checks in the name of the deceased or automatic deposits to the deceased loved one’s accounts may have to be returned or may belong to other beneficiaries.  Ask us before cashing or accessing these. Click the link below to get help.

CLICK HERE TO TALK TO A PROBATE LAWYER

Health Care Coverage for Surviving Family

If the deceased was employed at the time of death, check with the employer or union to determine the family’s options for continuing medical insurance.  Some employers are required by law to allow family members to continue their medical benefits for up to 36 months under the Consolidated Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA).  The family will need to pay the employer the premiums for this coverage and must notify the employer of the covered employee’s death within 30 days.  You may also qualify for coverage under the Affordable Care Act.  Check www.healthcare.gov for more information.

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies can consider only a person’s age, geographic location, tobacco use, plan category, and individual vs. family enrollment status when setting premium costs. Insurance companies may not charge women more than men or take into account health status when setting rates. Check www.healthcare.gov or talk with your insurance broker or medical insurance provider for additional information.

Contact the Social Security Administration website for Medicare benefits.  If the family simply does not have any assets or enough income to provide care, you may contact the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which has a variety of medical assistance programs.  Medicaid is part of this program.

Emotional and Daily Care of Survivors

For all those deeply affected by the death, self-help is probably least effective.  Contact your local agencies that provide social and mental health services to obtain individual counseling, advice or recommendations for group support. In Maricopa County, go to www.maricopa.gov/5065/Resources.

Children left without a custodial parent need immediate adult supervision and direction.  Important steps to consider are:

  • Move them to the home of family or friends
  • If possible, get a letter authorizing someone to provide medical and educational care
  • Notify their schools and learn their school hours and how to get them to and from school
  • Notify their teachers
  • Contact the YMCA or YWCA or other social and mental health agency for day programs when school is not in session
  • A legal guardian can be named by the court. However, someone needs to file the applicable documents for this to happen. (We can help if you need.)
  • Arrange medical insurance coverage: either continuation of the deceased’s coverage or a new plan
  • Maintain normal daily routines: meals, bedtime, friend contact, responsibilities, religious services, etc.
  • Arrange counseling for the children through a church, synagogue, or service agency

Other family members, close friends and old friends can be found in the deceased person’s address book.  Give this to a family member who is willing to contact these people and see if they can help with taking care of the surviving children.

Elderly or Handicapped Dependents

The care needed for these family members is generally beyond the abilities and experience of most friends or other family.  Immediately contact a professional support agency through the Arizona Department of Health Services.  New legal authority to provide and decide for these dependents may also be needed.

Family Pets

Pets will often run away if not attended to or given affection.  Neighbors are usually the best and quickest short-term care solution.  Longer term placement may be necessary.  Keep secure control of the animals with leashes, fenced yards or pens until daily care is arranged.  Arrange for daily feeding, water, and cleaning of their area.  As with children, take the pet’s toys and familiar things with them when they are moved.

Of course, if the deceased person left written instructions regarding the pet’s care, has set-up a pet trust for the continuing care of the pet, or has given the pet to a family member or friend under the will, follow these instructions if possible.

When it is not possible to find the pet a permanent new home, you may have to get outside help. 

Special Situations

It is the responsibility of the deceased loved one’s personal representative to take care of assets.  During winter months, if the house is unoccupied, winterize the home by keeping some heat on, putting anti-freeze in the toilets, and insulating outside faucets.  Winterizing sprinkler systems may be necessary, as well.

Neighbors can be asked to keep an eye on things and take protective action for any of the property.  They will be protected in their actions when done in good faith.  Consider changing the locks on the residence if no one will be there.

Any business operated by the deceased should be contacted so someone can be designated to be in charge and to pay utilities and payroll.

The next of kin might have a moral duty to keep track of the deceased person’s property, but usually is not legally responsible to care for it.  If the deceased person’s personal representative requests, that property should be turned over as part of the deceased person’s estate for distribution to estate beneficiaries.

Vehicles, boats, etc. should be secured, insured and the keys collected.

Taking Care of Funeral Arrangements

Funerals are the formal recognition of death in most cultures and play a significant role in the life cycle of the person who has died and their survivors.  Cultural, spiritual, and emotional influences shape the nature of funeral plans. Sometimes, this can overwhelm someone experiencing this for the first time.  This section will help you understand what to expect as you make these arrangements.

Funeral Directions

Once death has occurred, you will need to contact a funeral home.  Try to determine if the deceased person had made his or her own plans with a funeral home.  Check the deceased person’s files to see if he or she had any burial insurance contracts with an insurance company or pre-arrangement funeral contracts with a funeral home or memorial association.  Information may be found among invoices, canceled checks or in a personal letter kept with the will.  Also, check the deceased’s electronic files. If nothing is found, contact the funeral home of your choice.  They are staffed 24-hours a day.  The funeral director will offer assistance and comfort, and will take care of most of the details.

Funeral Choices

You may be asked to make several decisions:

  • Choice of disposition: burial, cremation, or cremation with scattering of ashes.
  • Type of casket for burial, or urn for cremation. You may select interment prior to a memorial service when burial is the preferred disposition.
  • Choice of cemetery and lot for burial, or niche for cremation. Burial need not be in the cemetery affiliated with the funeral home.
  • Religious preference. Church, chapel, or graveside services. You may elect to have no funeral service.
  • Choice of headstone or marker.
  • Viewing and related embalming, if desired.
  • Processional and escort to graveside service, if desired.
  • There is a list of Arizona funeral homes at www.USAfuneralhomesonline.com.

What to Expect from Your Funeral Director

The funeral director will assist you with the many details of planning the funeral.  Among the more common details, the funeral director can assist the family with:

  • Transporting the remains from the hospital, residence, nursing home or other location to the funeral home.
  • Obtaining the physician’s signature on the death certificate, filing with the various authorities, and obtaining certified copies of the death certificate for the family and personal representative to use in organizing the deceased’s financial affairs.
  • Preparing death notices for the various newspapers.
  • Coordinating other elements of the service including clergy, newspapers, florists, printers, motorcycle escorts, vocalists, musicians, and cemetery or crematorium.
  • Providing chapel and viewing area at the funeral home itself.
  • Providing funeral coach, family limousine and other necessary transportation services.
  • Forwarding the remains to another funeral home.
  • Receiving the remains from another funeral home.
  • Filing claims for veteran’s benefits, execution of Social Security forms and handling of insurance forms.
  • Coordinating and forwarding an honorably discharged veteran or spouse to a national cemetery for interment.
  • Offering follow-up bereavement programs for the family. These programs can be very helpful when dealing with the various stages of the grieving process. 

Funeral Costs

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the national median cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial in 2021 was approximately $7,848 while the median cost of a funeral with cremation was approximately $6,971.

To contain costs and ensure that you only get the services that you want, the Federal Trade Commission enforces the “Funeral Rule,” which gives you certain rights including, among others: the right to price information over the telephone, the right to purchase only the funeral arrangements you want without having to accept a package, the right to a written, itemized price list.  Visit www.consumer.ftc.gov and search “funeral rule” for more information.

Getting Organized

The purpose of this section is to discuss what needs to be done soon, but not necessarily immediately after a death.

Going into the Home

A distinction should be made between things a friend, neighbor or relative might do to be helpful and things that need to be done by the personal representative in an official capacity.  When a personal representative (or executor) is appointed by the court, that person assumes an official capacity to manage the estate.  One of the first steps taken by the personal representative will be to locate documents.

There will be necessary actions such as care of pets and plants, which should be done by anyone who is willing to help.  It is appropriate to pick up mail, newspapers, other deliveries, etc. and inform the deliverers of the person’s death.  Mail should be given to the personal representative as soon as possible.  It may be appropriate for someone to go into the deceased’s home and look for address books or telephone directories so the relatives can be contacted.

When entering the deceased’s home, try not to remove items.  Keep a written list of any items that you feel have to be removed.  Indicate on the list where these items have been placed.  This list should be turned over to the personal representative at the earliest possible time. Sometimes, it is helpful to obtain photos or videos, although that is not required. If you find important papers in your search for phone numbers and addresses, make note of what papers you found and where you found them.  Do not remove any important papers, unless you are the personal representative.  Make sure the residence is securely locked when you leave.

What to Look For

The following are items you should locate and place in a safe location:

Final Instructions of the Deceased  

Often, the deceased will leave instructions for his or her estate.  These instructions tell where other documents may be located.  This could be a letter (often sealed) or a more formal document.

Will  

Locate a signed copy of the will.  Often the will can be found among the deceased’s important papers—for instance, in a safe deposit box—or with the attorney who wrote it.  An unsigned copy may be used to determine the law firm that may have a signed copy.

If the personal representative named in the will is available, deliver the will to the personal representative.  The will should be read immediately as it may give the deceased’s preference for funeral arrangements or organ/tissue donation.

If the deceased person had a list of tangible personal property (directing disposition of personal effects to individuals), that list may have been placed with the will or elsewhere in the home.  This list should be located and given to the personal representative.

Trust Documents

These may be trust instruments in which the deceased is either named as a beneficiary or a trustee.

Insurance Policies

Life, health, medical, property and casualty insurance policies should be identified and given to the personal representative.  More information will be further discussed in the article regarding life insurance benefits.

Deeds and Titles

Property deeds, mortgage documents and other loan agreements, vehicle registration and title, stock and bond certificates, membership certificates, property appraisals and property tax statements.

Personal Documents

Social security card or social security number, birth certificates of all family members, marriage license, prenuptial and other marital property agreements, military discharge papers, divorce papers, citizenship papers, adoption papers for children.

Occasionally some of this information is recorded in the family religious books.

Financial Documents

Business financial statements and business agreements, bank account numbers and bank certificates, canceled check and bank card statements, income tax returns (up to six years), and gift tax returns (all years).  Check the deceased’s electronic records or phone to identify available accounts and other assets.

Unpaid bills

When looking through personal papers and records, be very careful not to destroy or lose papers that may seem unimportant initially.  Often, seemingly unimportant information may be used to find other very important information.  For example, health insurance company notices of payments may help you identify an unpaid health care provider who should receive notice to file a creditor claim.

Who to Contact

The following are people to contact so you can start to work on the financial affairs of the deceased.  Some may be contacted by friends or family (F/F) while others should only be contacted by the personal representative (PR).

    • The attorney who wrote the deceased’s will or represented the deceased, or an attorney experienced in probating estates. (F/F) (PR)
    • Any person holding the deceased’s power of attorney. (F/F) (PR)
    • The deceased’s tax preparer or certified public accountant. (PR)
    • The trustee of any trust in which the deceased was a beneficiary. This should include pension, IRA, or other retirement plan trustees.  (PR)
    • The deceased’s bank. Ask about accounts you are aware of as well as additional accounts and certificates that you may not be aware of, including joint accounts and safe deposit boxes.  Also inquire with the bank if any accounts, including mortgages, carried life insurance to pay off balances.  (PR)
    • The successor trustee or co-trustee of any trusts of which the deceased was a trustee. (PR)
    • The personnel department of the deceased’s employer. Remember to inquire about sick leave pay, vacation pay, and other wages, as well as any death benefits from life insurance or retirement plans.  (F/F) (PR)
    • The Social Security office should be contacted (www.ssa.gov/Seattle, 1-800-772-1213). When speaking with the Social Security Administration, have the deceased’s Social Security number, as well as those of any spouse or dependents of the deceased.  You may need birth certificates, marriage licenses, self-employment tax returns (if appropriate), and a recent Form W-2.  (F/F)
    • Contact any known insurance agents, including life, medical, disability, automobile, homeowners, etc., used by the deceased. Request claim forms for any benefits that are due. Request termination of coverages that are no longer needed and return of any unearned premiums (F/F) (PR)
    • If the deceased was a veteran, contact the Veterans Administration. (F/F) (PR)
Arizona Department Veterans Administration
3839 N. 3rd St.
Phoenix, AZ 85012
Telephone:  602-255-3373
www.dvs.az.gov/
    • Contact all credit card companies. Those cards issued in the deceased’s name alone should be canceled immediately.  Any cards issued in joint names may be usable, however, the company will probably wish to discontinue the account and reissue new cards.  Remember to ask whether there was credit card insurance, which may pay the outstanding balance or perhaps may have an additional life insurance benefit.  (PR)
    • If the deceased worked with any stockbrokers or financial advisors/planners, contact them. Request information on stock, bond, and mutual fund account balances.  Also inquire in whose name these accounts appear and ask about life insurance death benefits associated with these accounts.  (PR)
    • Contact the state department of motor vehicles to ask for forms needed to change vehicle titles. (PR)  [https://azdot.gov/motor-vehicle-services,602-255-0072]
    • Contact any clubs or business organizations in which the deceased was a member and request refund of prepaid dues. (F/F) (PR)
    • Contact any magazine, book, cable, internet provider, phone company, or other organization to which the deceased subscribed to cancel subscriptions and accounts. (F/F) (PR)
    • Determine whether the deceased person received only electronic statements for any accounts. You may be able to identify these by reviewing the deceased person’s income tax returns, financial statements, or accessing a list of passwords or accounts maintained by the deceased person.  (PR)

It is common for things to be overlooked or forgotten.  Make a list of who was contacted, when they were contacted and what was discussed.

Bills to Pay and Bills not to Pay

After the deceased person’s death, all unpaid bills should be collected and given to the personal representative, if one is appointed.  Debts of the estate should be paid by the personal representative from an account set up for the estate and not out of a personal checking account.  If the deceased person used automatic payment or paid bills electronically, these billings should be identified.  Depending upon the billing, the account should be closed or the billing directed to the estate account.  

Mortgages and other loan agreements that are signed by the deceased and his or her spouse are joint debts.  Property taxes, household expenses, and credit cards authorized by both spouses are joint debts.  Legal and accounting fees from work related to the estate, funeral expenses, doctor, and hospital bills are examples of bills of the deceased.  The attorney for the estate should be able to help identify which bills belong to whom and to make sure that the proper creditor claim procedures are used.

If there will be no personal representative, the surviving spouse can pay the bills as soon as funds are available. 

Well-meaning friends and relatives should not pay the bills or funeral expenses unless they have obtained assurances that they will be reimbursed.  In all cases, review past check registers to be sure the bill has not already been paid.

If in doubt, you will encounter few problems by waiting 60 days while the affairs are getting organized before paying major bills.  Certain bills should be paid regularly until the estate is settled:  utilities, phone, insurance on home and cars, etc., residential fees, mortgages.  Rented medical equipment should be returned for refunds.

Checks, cash, or other payments meant for the deceased should be turned over to the personal representative.  The personal representative should deposit these in an account set up in the estate’s name.

Digital or Electronic Access to Information

Check to see if the deceased maintained a list of user names or passwords for his or her computer, tablet, accounts available on-line, or smartphone.  While the user agreements of the providers may address access by a personal representative or heir, states are now beginning to enact legislation governing and permitting access to a deceased person’s digital assets and electronic information.  The deceased not only may have on-line financial information, but also may have electronically stored valuable personal information such as photographs or recordings.

 Scams and Con Artists

Be very careful that bills you pay are legitimate.  At the time of a person’s death, con artists may appear who may bill you for things that were never ordered.  Or they may overbill you for things that were ordered.  They may pose as city inspectors or other officials requiring you to make expensive repairs to the property.  Ask for signed purchase orders.  Ask for identification.  Check identification through sources other than those provided by the suspected con artist. Do not provide social security numbers, account numbers, or any of the deceased’s personal identifying information.  If you are not sure the person is legitimate, ask them to submit a bill or request in writing to your attorney.  Do not allow yourself to get rushed into paying a bill.  Take your time to scrutinize all creditors’ claims.

Legal Matters:  How Property Passes at Death

Introduction

When someone dies, whatever he or she owned passes to new owners.  This section provides a general overview of how property passes in Arizona. The information may vary from state to state.  Sometimes a will passes the property; sometimes other arrangements have been made, such as joint bank accounts, life insurance beneficiary designations, joint tenancy with right of survivorship property, community property agreements, living trusts, and the like.  There are formal legal procedures for settling someone’s affairs — often referred to as “probate” — and informal procedures that usually involve filling out forms for financial institutions.  The following should help you to decide which procedures are right for you.

If There is a Will

The traditional way people transfer legal ownership to their property at death is by a written document called a will.  As mentioned above, when someone dies one of the first steps in settling his or her affairs should be locating the will.

Wills nominate the deceased person’s personal representative, who must be confirmed by the court in a probate proceeding.  After the personal representative accepts appointment, he or she is responsible for transferring, as directed in the will, the legal ownership of property owned by the deceased person in his or her individual name.  Generally, if property is held in the name of the deceased, and there is no alternative arrangement such as a joint tenancy with right of survivorship or beneficiary designation, that property passes under a will.  These are called “probate assets.”  Some types of property pass automatically at death outside the will. These are called “non-probate assets.”

Under Arizona law, anyone locating a will has a duty to deliver it to the personal representative named in the will within 30 days of the date of death.  If the named personal representative cannot be located within 30 days, the will must be delivered to the clerk of the Superior Court in the county where the person died.  Upon receiving the will, the personal representative is required to file it with the court within 40 days after learning of the death, even if no probate proceeding is commenced.  Even if a probate proceeding is not commenced, the will must be filed with the Superior Court.

If There is No Will

If a person leaves no will, his or her property passes by intestacy, according to Arizona law, to a specific list of relatives, who may include a spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings, parents, and persons descended from the deceased person’s great grandparents.  These individuals are known as the person’s intestate heirs.

In the absence of a will, surviving spouses receive all community property and a substantial amount of the separate property.  The rest of the property is divided among descendants (children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren) or, if there are no descendants, it is distributed to parents, brothers and sisters, their descendants, and so forth.

Ultimately, in the event there are no surviving intestate heirs, the property passes to the State of Arizona.

Small Estates

Arizona provides that if the deceased person left personal property worth no more than $100,000, less liens and encumbrances, then a person MAY be able to transfer that property using an affidavit. Also, if the deceased person left real property (like a house) worth no more than $100,000, less liens and encumbrances, then a person MAY be able to transfer that property using an affidavit.

However, it is best to talk to an attorney and make sure you are entitled to use the affidavit. There is a short list of people who can use this method of transferring assets after a person died.

In Maricopa County, the form and instructions are available at https://superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/llrc/prob_pbse1/.

If you are unsure what to do, give us a call. Otherwise, you risk taking assets that others could later contest. Click the link below to get help.

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Probate

Larger estates normally require court procedures to transfer legal ownership.  Unless there are complications involving the estate, this may involve only a little supervision by the judge or court commissioner, but there are at least five steps involved in this process called probate.

    1. The court is notified of the person’s death. If there is a will, it is delivered to the court and it will be determined if it is in fact the Last Will and Testament.  If no will can be found, the court will determine who the heirs are and what their share will be, all according to state law.  If a will is found but someone objects to any part of it, they have four months to file an official complaint, called a“Will Contest,” with the court.  The court will schedule atime to consider the complaints and order changes if it agrees with the complaining party.
    1. The court will appoint someone to be the legal representative of the estate with all the authority to sign for the deceased and deal with the deceased’s property. There are various titles given to this person of authority, such as personal representative, executor, executrix, administrator, etc.  They are all similar in that they are the only ones with authority to act for the deceased.  A general term for this person is the “Personal Representative.”

The personal representative must, within 20 days, notify everyone named in the will, every legal heir, every other person with a financial interest in the estate, and must tell them a court proceeding has begun.

    1. A Notice to Creditors is then published in a local newspaper, and must be delivered to any known creditors. Creditors may include credit card issuers, mortgage lenders, medical care providers, and even the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System if the deceased person was receiving Medicaid benefits.  The personal representative is obligated to make a reasonable search for creditors of the deceased.

Generally, if a creditor fails to file a written claim for payment within four months of the publication of this notice, the claim is barred forever.  If a claim is filed but rejected, the creditor may file a lawsuit against the estate.

    1. Within 90 days of being appointed, the personal representative must prepare a list of all of the estate’s property, sometimes referred to as an inventory. Or, if it includes property values, it is referred to as an inventory and appraisement. If requested by persons interested in the estate, usually beneficiaries or creditors, the personal representative is obligated to provide a copy of the inventory and appraisement to such persons.  In most instances, the inventory or an inventory and appraisement need not be filed with the court.

In settling the deceased’s affairs, the personal representative must keep separate financial records for the estate.  Estate property and funds should not be mixed in with the personal representative’s own property and funds.

There are special accounting rules that apply to estates; any personal representative with questions should get the help of an experienced certified public accountant.  Sometimes personal representatives are required to give a full accounting report to the court.  For this reason, every personal representative should keep careful and complete records.

    1. Finally, after all other steps have been taken — including filing estate tax returns and paying estate taxes and income taxes — the remaining property is distributed to those entitled to receive it and the estate is closed. In most estates, the personal representative signs a declaration of completion (a brief report on the closing of the estate, and a listing of professional fees paid), which is sent to all of the beneficiaries.  If a beneficiary has a question or a dispute about how the estate has been handled, court review of the personal representative’s actions and fees can be requested.

Under Arizona law, the personal representative can ask the court to approve any action the personal representative wants to take, such as selling real property or vehicles, or paying legal fees, or for any part of the estate settlement process where the court’s review and support seems important to the personal representative.  However, powers of the personal representatives are broad enough not to require supervision very often; and when they act in good faith and exercise their best judgment, court approval is not required, and most estates are settled without further court involvement.

Non-Probate Assets

Some types of property will not be controlled by will and pass directly to beneficiaries without the necessity of probate after the person’s death.  Examples of non-probate assets include assets designated payable on death (POD) or transfer on death (TOD), jointly owned assets with right of survivorship, life insurance, certain retirement benefits, and property held in a revocable living trust. 

If There is Property Outside Arizona

If the deceased has left real estate or certain types of personal property located outside the State of Arizona, court proceedings in other states may be required.  Some states have special streamlined procedures for such “ancillary” probates.  Contact your local attorney for assistance in this process.

Appointing a Guardian for Minor Children

Usually, the surviving parent is the guardian.  If there is no surviving parent, the person named in the deceased’s will is usually appointed guardian by the court.  A close friend or relative may be appointed if no guardian is designated in the will.

As mentioned above, if the deceased person left children under age 18, it may be necessary to appoint a legal guardian to make decisions about where the children should live and go to school, about medical treatment, and about their religious or spiritual upbringing.

Minor or Incapacitated Beneficiaries

If property of the deceased person has been bequeathed to a minor or to any other incapacitated person, and the deceased has not provided for a trust or other management arrangement in the will itself, it may be necessary for the personal representative to have a conservator appointed for the beneficiary.

Arizona law permits a person to name an underaged beneficiary in a will or trust to receive an inheritance according to the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act. This arrangement is particularly appropriate when a small gift or inheritance to a minor is involved.  In general, these protective arrangements end on a minor’s 18th birthday.

If the Deceased Was a Beneficiary or Trustee of a Trust

Sometimes the person who dies was a beneficiary of a trust, or was acting as trustee. Perhaps the deceased person had a deceased spouse or other relative who named him or her as a beneficiary or trustee.  If so, talk to an attorney. Click the link below to get help.

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If the person was a trust beneficiary, the trustee should be notified of the death so that any income or other payments from the trust can be stopped.

Sometimes a trust gives the beneficiary a power to name the next beneficiary, or the power to give directions about the continued administration of the trust after death.  These powers are referred to as powers of appointment.  Depending on what the trust agreement says, the powers of appointment might be “exercised” in the deceased’s will or in some other document.  The trustee will need to get a copy of that will or other document.

If the deceased was a trustee, it will be necessary to identify and contact any successor trustee or co-trustee.  This person or financial institution will often be named in the trust; sometimes another document signed by the deceased accomplishes this.

It might be necessary to prepare an accounting for the time during which the deceased served as trustee, and to prepare a list of assets for the successor trustee and beneficiaries.  Trust assets and records should be kept separate from the deceased’s personal assets and records.

If the trust ends with the death of the trustee, the successor trustee will have to take steps to wrap up the trust administration, possibly including filing tax returns, and to distribute the trust property to the proper beneficiaries.

Under Arizona law, these steps should be taken as soon as possible.  Again, if any questions about handling the trust come up, they should be discussed with an attorney.

Informal Procedures – When No Court Proceeding is Needed

As mentioned in the last section, there are many ways to pass ownership of property without a will and without probate.  In fact, the Will will not impact these arrangements.  In all matters, however, complete information on all property belonging to the deceased should be collected.  Here are a few of the more common Arizona arrangements.

Community Property Agreements

A community property agreement is a written document signed by a married couple that converts all of their property into community property, and upon the death of one of the spouses transfers legal ownership automatically to the surviving spouse.  To complete the automatic transfer of ownership, the surviving spouse must record the original community property agreement with the county recorder and obtain certified copies of the agreement and the death certificate for banks, title insurance companies, and other people who need to know about ownership of those assets.

Revocable Living Trusts

The revocable living trust is an increasingly popular way to avoid probate.  This document provides for both for management of property during a lifetime and for management and passing of property after death.  If the deceased has signed a revocable living trust before death, most of the property will be registered in the trust’s name; for instance:

“John Smith, Trustee of the Smith Family Trust Dated January 1, 1990.”

This method of transferring legal ownership eliminates the need for probate, and it is especially beneficial if there is real property in more than one state.  If property transfers through a living trust, probate procedures such as notice to creditors may not be part of the process.  If questions about the trust come up, however, court supervision is available upon request.  In addition, if there is no probate proceeding, a statutory procedure exists to formally notify creditors.

It is important for a lawyer to review the will, the revocable living trust, and the property registered to the trust after death.  Tax planning is often needed, and the trustee may have to file tax returns, such as the federal estate tax return.

Joint Ownership with Right of Survivorship

Joint tenancy is a common way to transfer legal ownership at death – that is, joint ownership of property with an automatic right of survivorship in the other joint owner or owners.  Bank accounts, investments, and real estate can be transferred in this way.  The surviving owner’s name will be listed on the account.  To demonstrate the transfer of legal ownership to the surviving owner, all the surviving owner needs to do is obtain a certified copy of the death certificate.  If a surviving owner would like to show that the deceased owner no longer has an interest in real estate, the surviving owner can record an affidavit to that effect, attaching a copy of the death certificate.

For investment securities and bank accounts, the financial institution must be provided a certified copy of the death certificate to transfer the account to the surviving owner or owners.  The financial institution may wish to have the surviving owner provide an affidavit, stating that the deceased lived in Arizona and that any estate taxes will be paid.

Pay on Death and Transfer on Death for Accounts and Securities

Bank accounts, brokerage accounts, and investment securities can be held in a similar way, under Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) registrations.  The only difference between this type of ownership and joint ownership is that the person who owns the property after death has no ownership prior to death.  To re-register such property, a certified copy of the death certificate and the type of affidavit described above are necessary.  The specific requirements may differ between banks.

Life Insurance

Life insurance is another popular non-probate asset that is discussed in detail elsewhere.  The beneficiary should immediately contact the life insurance agent or the insurance company itself to obtain the necessary forms.

Pension and Other Tax-qualified Plan Accounts, IRA’s and Annuities

Finally, pension and profit-sharing plan accounts (401(k) plan accounts, individual retirement accounts and annuities) usually pass under a beneficiary designation similar to that used for life insurance.  The deceased’s surviving spouse probably is entitled to receive an annuity or other distribution of the plan, unless that spouse has given up the right to receive the distribution.  Filling out the forms to receive such a qualified plan benefit, or to receive an individual retirement account or other similar account, is easy.  But watch out:  Several complicated income tax problems can occur, depending on how benefits are paid. The beneficiary should be sure to consult a tax advisor before applying for distributions.  Some requirements relate to the timing of payment and withdrawals.  Be sure to review these requirements well before September 30 of the year following the deceased person’s death.

Find Out About Possible Death Benefits.

Life Insurance

The deceased person may have had life insurance. If so, that may be the quickest way to obtain available cash.

Employee Benefits

The deceased may have had employee benefits. This could include a pension or other benefits. Don’t assume these will automatically be paid to the right person. It pays for someone to contact the deceased person’s employer or possibly the CPA or attorney to ask if they know anything about possible employment-related benefits.

Veterans Benefits

The deceased person may have also had veterans’ benefits. This could include a lump sum payment, plus a payment towards burial expenses. You may also be entitled to a monthly allowance under certain circumstances.

Social Security

The surviving loved ones may be entitled to certain social security payments. These can include a payment towards burial expenses, and other payments.

Taxes

Taxes are one of the unfortunate things you need to deal when a person dies. And the IRS doesn’t care that you are grieving. The deadlines are what they are, and you have to file tax returns when they are due.  

Final Thoughts

Over the years, we have seen families torn apart by disputes involving the death of a loved one. We’ve seen siblings each spend $20,000 in lawyer fees to fight over a $5,000 Rolex watch. (True story.) When someone dies, it amplifies feelings of fear, jealousy, greed, and resentment. You probably can’t prevent other people from having these feelings. But you can help prevent conflict and court battles by doing things properly and making sure people feel heard. A good law firm (like ours) will help you through this process. We want to be an advocate for you and your family to help you through this difficult time. Click the link below to get help.

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About the Author

This article was written by me, attorney Paul Deloughery. I’ve been practicing law since 1998 and was admitted to practice law in Arizona in 2004. I started Sudden Wealth Protection Law because I noticed how people change when they are receiving a financial windfall (like an inheritance). We help families and business owners protect their assets and empower their children to become responsible stewards of their wealth. And part of what we do is making sure things go right after the death of a loved one.

I wrote a book called Lasting Wealth: A Revolutionary Method of Family Wealth Transfer (available on Amazon.com).  And I’m AV-rated (Preeminent) by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the oldest attorney rating system in the U.S.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Founding attorney Paul Deloughery has been an attorney since 1998, became a Certified Family Wealth Advisor. He is also the founder of Sudden Wealth Protection Law.

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