The loss of a loved one is a tough time to navigate. There are important decisions to be made as you complete the necessary tasks. Each situation is different, we recommend you consult an estate-planning attorney for assistance in processing an estate.

Where to start?

  • Inform your immediate family and close friends: make sure to check in with them regarding the details of the final preparations
  • Schedule appointments to coordinate the funeral, burial or cremation, and memorial services: during these appointments, remember to address any prearrangements and final wishes your loved one may have had.
  • Publish an obituary in the local newspaper: the funeral director can assist with this. Avoid including excessive personal information in the obituary to mitigate the risk of identity theft.
  • Inform your loved one’s current employer about the passing: Get in touch with the personnel department of their current workplace to gather any outstanding salary, vacation, or sick payments. It may be wise to ask about the possibility of maintaining health insurance coverage and potential benefits for surviving spouses or children. If the death was connected to work, there could be a change to file a worker’s compensation clean through their employer or trade union.
  • Reach out to your employer: organize bereavement leave.
  • Get in touch with the schools your loved one’s children attend: if necessary
  • Inform the relevant entities: notify any professional associations, charitable organizations, labor unions or other organizations your loved one held membership in.
  • Acquire official copies of the death certificate: The office involved in assisting with you loved one’s final arrangements can aid you in obtaining certified copies of the death certificate. The cost for each certified copy might range from $20 to $25, depending on the state. Typically, financial institutions and insurance companies will need a copy of the certified death certificate for processing funds related to your loved one. As a result, we advise you request multiple copies if you are tasked with settling their financial matters.
  • Submit the will to applicable probate court: In the even your loved one has left behind a will; it may be necessary to file it with the probate court situated in the city or county where your loved one lived. It is important to note that submitting the will does not automatically initiate the probate process. We recommend that you get in touch with an estate planning attorney to ascertain whether there is a need to commence probate proceedings.
  • Reach out to your loved one’s financial advisor: They can assist in identifying your loved one’s investments and evaluating the value of those holdings as of the date of their passing. Additionally, they can aid in transferring the ownership of assets to the designated beneficiary or heir.
  • Locate essential legal documents: Documents such as marriage certificates, birth or adoption records of children, and military discharge papers may be required to transfer ownership of assets or to apply for benefits on behalf of a surviving spouse or children. It is possible that your loved on kept copies of these documents in a safe-deposit box or with their estate planning attorney.
    • Opening a safe-deposit box: In the event you are accessing your loved one’s safe- deposit box, it might be prudent to have a witness accompany you to assist in documenting the box’s contents. If there is no designated individual authorized to open the safe deposit box, it is advisable to inquire whether the bank staff can unlock it to search for the will or relevant legal documents. If not, you may need to initiate a legal process to obtain a court order for its opening.
    • Obtaining copies of legal documents: If you require duplicated of your loved one’s legal documents, such as marriage or birth certificates, it is recommended to get in touch with the Office of Vital Statistics in the city or county where the marriage or birth took place. To obtain copies of military discharge documents, you need to reach out to the National Personnel Records Center.
  • Get in touch with your loved one’s estate planning attorney: This attorney will be able to furnish you or the appointed estate fiduciary with copies of the most up-to-date estate planning documents and extend guidance throughout the probate procedure.
  • Notify the Social Security Administration about the passing: If your loved one was receiving benefits, get in touch with your nearby Social Security Administration office to determine if there’s a need to reimburse any payments. Furthermore, a surviving spouse and children might qualify for a one time death benefit and/or survivors’ benefits. o To contact your local Social Security Administration Office: visit, or call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778)
  • Identify insurance policies: Reach out to the insurance companies where your loved one held policies to understand their specific claims procedures. It is advisable to seek guidance from your legal counsel to ascertain whether funds are required for financial obligations or taxes. If annuities are involved, the beneficiary (or beneficiaries) should collaborate with a legal or tax advisor to determine the most suitable payout option.
  • Inform credit card companies: Close all cards held solely by your loved one. Regularly examine credit card statements to confirm the absence of unauthorized transactions and to request reimbursement for applicable fees.
  • Contact credit bureaus: To minimize the potential for identify theft, inform all three credit reporting agencies – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion – regarding your loved one’s passing. They can label the accounts as “deceased” to establish a lasting credit freeze.
  • Reach out to former employers: to address pension plans and get in touch with the custodians or trustees of Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). Your loved one’s estate planning attorney can assist in transferring ownership of retirement account assets to the intended beneficiaries.
  • Inform your loved one’s financial institution(s): They can assist you to either change the account title or proceed with distribution as required. Additionally, ensure the cancellation of any active online banking services.
  • Examine the policy of your loved one’s email service provider.
  • Change the ownership title of jointly held assets: Including bank accounts, vehicles, stock, bonds and real estate.
  • Discontinue your loved one’s passport and driver’s license.
  • Inform utility companies.
  • Get in touch with your loved one’s mortgage company: It might be necessary to communicate with the financial institution that holds the mortgage for your loved one’s real estate, in order to ensure that mortgage payments and homeowners’ insurance are being covered during the estate settlement process.
  • Deactivate your loved one’s social media accounts: Social media platforms have varying policies regarding the closure of accounts belonging to deceased individuals. In certain instances, it may be possible to convert your loved one’s profile into a memorial.
    • There are situations where your loved one might have designated a successor administer for their social media accounts, if permitted by the particular social media platform. Alternatively, if your loved one designates a digital executor through their will, there could be additional options available in accordance with the specific policies of the social media site.

Specific Items to Discuss with an Estate Planning Attorney

Organize all of the following in collaboration with your estate planning attorney:

  • Submit a federal estate tax return typically within nine months after the date of death: It might also be necessary to file a state estate tax or inheritance tax return, as regulations differ by state. Additionally, consider the requirement of filing a federal estate tax return. Regular federal and state income taxes for the year of death should be filed by the standard due date.
  • Initiate a probate process through the necessary court if deemed necessary: Consult your loved one’s estate planning attorney to determine whether opening a probate estate is required in their city or county of residence. Additionally, discuss whether an ancillary probate estate needs to be established for any property owned by your loved one in a state other than their state of residence.

Steps for the Executor:

The subsequent actions can assist you in finalizing your loved one’s estate.

  • Obtain certified letters of appointment or a court order: Probate involves the resolution of a deceased person’s estate, encompassing the collection of assets and settlement of debts. In cases where the estate undergoes probate proceedings, the probate court issues either letters of appointment or a court order designating the authorized representative(s) for the estate and identifying the rightful recipients of the deceased person’s belongings. If all of the deceased person’s property is transferred without probate (such as through joint ownership with survivorship rights or designated beneficiaries), opening a probate estate might not be necessary. It is recommended to consult an estate planning attorney to determine the best course of action for your specific circumstances.
  • Recognize and assess the value of your loved one’s assets as of the date of their passing: If federal or state estate tax return is mandated, you might be required to ascertain the value of all property owned by the deceased at the time of death, irrespective of whether those assets are undergoing probate.
  • Allocate the estate’s assets to beneficiaries: in accordance with your loved one’s will or as per directives from the probate court.
  • Revise your own estate plan: if your loved one was listed as a beneficiary or had been designated as an agent, trustee, or guardian.
  • Update your beneficiary designations: if the decedent was previously named as a beneficiary.
  • Reassess your short and long-term financial situation.
  • Review your investment requirements: As life events and market conditions evolve, your investments might not consistently align with your financial objectives.
  • Review your insurance requirements: Analyze your existing policies and assess your needs to identify any potential gaps in coverage.
  • Explore the possibility to consolidating inherited IRAs: It is important to note that even if consolidation occurs, you might still be required to make mandatory minimum distributions from the IRAs.

Important Documents

The following documents might be necessary during the process of finalizing a loved one’s estate:


  • Birth certificate
  • Marriage certificate, divorce papers or prenuptial agreement
  • Military records
  • Adoption papers for minor children
  • Trust/ Will documents
  • Bank account records
  • Mortgages and deeds
  • Partnership, operating and shareholder agreements
  • Leases
  • Most recent and prior year-end brokerage/ investment statements
  • Stock or bond certificates
  • Insurance policies
  • Most recent statements for employer-sponsored retirement plans or IRAs
  • Loan documents
  • Income tax returns
  • Prior gift tax returns (Form 709)
  • Most recent credit card statements
  • Records relating to the value of tangible assets
  • Title to a burial plot
  • Titles to automobiles/ other personal property

Special thanks to our own Harper Hass for her assistance in writing this article 

H. Van Smith
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Trusted Virginia Attorney Serving Richmond to Williamsburg