The Legal Steps to Take When a Loved One Dies (Part 3 of 3)

In the first two parts of this series, we looked at what to do immediately after a loved one dies, who to contact, the initial stages of gathering and organizing what has been left behind.  In this part of the series, we will look at locating relevant documents and successfully administering the deceased’s estate.

Commonly, the deceased was the owner of a safe deposit box and, frequently, the deceased’s important documents are located in the box. A person’s whose name is also on the box may enter at any time.  As the “power” to act for another ends at the time of death, an agent operating under a power of attorney does not, however, have the authority to enter a deceased’s box.  Rather, an heir or other beneficiary under a will can ask the bank in which the box is located to allow him/her access to the box for the purpose of locating a will, a deed to a burial plot and/or burial instructions.  In such instance, a representative of the bank will accompany you to the box and remove any will that may be found.  The bank will retain possession of the will and forward it to the Court.  After the will is filed with the Court, the Court will appoint a personal representative who will then have access to the contents of the box.

Once appointed, the personal representative should search for all other important papers.  Common places where such documents may be found are the home, office, safe deposit box and glove boxes of the deceased.  Important documents may also be found with the deceased’s attorney, accountant, financial advisors and, at times, with trusted relatives or friends.

Some of the documents which may be important include:

  • life insurance policies;

  • pension, IRA, and retirement account statements;marriage and birth certificates;

  • divorce decrees and related instruments;

  • military records;

  • bank statements, checkbook registers, and certificates of deposit;

  • tax returns;

  • motor vehicle titles;

  • deeds, mortgages, and title insurance policies;

  • leases;

  • stock and bond certificates;

  • partnership and/or corporate documents;

  • health insurance policies;

  • unpaid bills;

  • computer bookkeeping and other records;

  • trust agreements; and

  • notes receivable and payable.

This is not a comprehensive list and the list may be larger or smaller depending on the person and the complexity of his or her estate.

You should also look for house keys, car keys, safe deposit box keys and others of the like.  You will also want to review the person’s computer records; more and more, people “lives” are kept on their computers which may yield a rich trove of what is owned and where it may be found.

There are scams aplenty when someone dies so beware of unscrupulous persons.  As a general precept, it you are solicited by someone you don’t know—be on guard and be suspicious.  You should also be on guard against what may be fraudulent invoices.  Check everything you may receive carefully and question anything that doesn’t look right.

Likewise, you should move slowly and deliberately in liquidating the deceased’s estate.  For example, before transferring title to any asset to a beneficiary, the potential tax implications should be explored.  Sometimes refusing to accept an asset may make more sense than accepting it.  Issues such as these should always be explored with legal and/or accounting counsel.

In pursuing veteran’s benefits and social security benefits, you should contact each of these offices.  The mortuary may assist you with the associated paperwork.  When contacting the VA, you should call the nearest VA Benefits Information and Assistance office (the number for the Denver office is 800/827.1000).  The Social Security Administration may be reached at 800/772.1213.  You will need to be prepared to share all of the following with the SSA office:

  • the deceased’s relationship to you;

  • his or her social security number;

  • his or her date of birth and date of death;

  • the place of death;

  • the name(s) of the deceased’s surviving spouse and/or next of kin.

Benefits are available to a surviving spouse, children under 18 and certain disabled children and may include a lump-sum death benefit.  The Social Security Survivors benefits information may be obtained on line at You may also apply for benefits at this site.

For VA benefits claims you will need much of the same plus his or her VA number and dates of active service.  Veteran’s benefits may also include a lump sum payment to a surviving spouse: see,

When a loved one dies, it is a tragic and difficult circumstance.  If not made better, at least additional anguish can often be avoided by taking those steps necessary to administer the deceased’s estate with care, deliberation, attention, and a dose of caution.  And in that, there may be found at least a modicum of peace.


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