When a loved one passes away, especially unexpectedly, the aftermath of settling their estate can overwhelm even the most organized family members. It may feel impossible to stay on top of who to notify, what the next move is, or where to begin. Luckily, there are many resources such as this to help you identify the next best steps and give you the tools to handle your loved one’s estate with confidence.

Locate any and all estate plan documents

To start, an estate is the net worth of all of a person’s assets after debts are paid. In the state of California, based on the size of your estate, you’re generally encouraged to seek legal advice on creating an “estate plan” during your life. A comprehensive estate plan will keep your loved ones out of probate court, minimize attorney’s fees, and ensure your final wishes are kept at the forefront after death. If you believe that your deceased family member may have created an estate plan, it’s essential to locate any and all original copies of their documents at this time. This includes (but is not limited to) a trust, will, insurance policies, and beneficiary designations.

Order death certificates

You can order certified copies of your loved one’s death certificate online using VitalChek. Please note that in Los Angeles County, it can take a minimum of two weeks for death certificates to be processed before they are available.

Notify the following entities

  • Credit companies and reporting agencies: Look for phone numbers on any recent bills they may have received and/or seek out company estate departments via an online search. Please note that each one is different, and some may require you to have death certificates in your possession before they’re able to advise you.
  • U.S. Social Security Administration: Do not cash any checks your loved one received from S.S. after their death. If their benefits were direct deposited during the month that they passed, this may qualify as overpayment and might need to be returned.
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, if applicable: If your loved one was a veteran, they may qualify for burial in a national cemetery, funeral cost assistance, etc.

Contact a trust and estate attorney

At this point, the executor or administrator of the estate may move forward with contacting an attorney of their choosing to advise them further.

Please note that California does not have a state estate tax, but if your loved one’s estate exceeds the federal estate tax exemption amount, your attorney may refer you to the appropriate tax advisor.

Review your own estate plan

Once your loved one’s estate has been settled, you may consider reviewing and updating your own estate plan. This is especially important if the deceased person was nominated as an agent and/or beneficiary of your estate, or if you experienced any major change in your assets following their death.

Additional factors to consider at this time


The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Brittany Britton is licensed to practice law in the state of California only.