Practical Steps to Take Following the Death of a Loved One

death of a loved one

Losing someone special can be an incredibly difficult and challenging time. Emotions following a death can overwhelm your thought process and suddenly you don’t know what needs to be done or where to begin.

In this special series, we have asked some of our attorneys to answer some questions and share their insight on topics that mean a lot to them. Mary Lee Berresheim is experienced in estate and probate law and has helped many clients navigate the difficult issues surrounding the death of a loved one. Here, she shares her practical advice on the best ways to proceed during this time.

What is the first thing you should do upon learning of the death of a loved one?    

The first thing to do is to obtain a death certificate. The funeral home will take care of this for you and will ask you how many death certificates you will need. You should request at least 10. Then you will need to go through the Decedent’s paperwork. The first thing to look for is a Will and/or Trust or any Estate Planning documents that the individual might have executed prior to their death. If you find the original Will, it must be filed within thirty days of the person’s death. The Will should be filed in the County in which the individual resided at the time of their death.

What are the most important steps a person should take when a family member passes?  

Once the Will has been filed and the estate planning located, you should look through all of the Decedent’s paperwork to determine what assets they owned.  For example, you will need to identify what real estate the individual owned and how the title was held. Then you will collect bank statements to determine if the individual had bank accounts and if so, with what banks and did they hold title with anyone else.  Also, did the individual have a pension or a 401(k) and/or any sort of brokerage account. If so, you should contact that financial advisor or the company and advise them of the death of the individual. Most of these kinds of accounts will have named beneficiaries and the brokerage or company will send the appropriate forms to the beneficiaries to collect these assets.

What are some examples of when an attorney can help during the process following a loved one’s death

Following the death of a loved one, you should always contact an attorney to help you to determine if the estate will need to be probated or not. If the value of the individual’s entire estate is less than $100,000, you will not need to probate but will be able to transfer any assets by a small estate affidavit. If the estate is over $100,000 you will have to file a probate action with the Court. You must be represented by an attorney in this type of court proceeding.

What is the best advice you could offer someone to make the process of dealing with a loved one’s passing easier?  

Contact an attorney as soon as possible to give you advice as to how to handle the collection and disbursement of assets. If you try to take on some of these tasks by yourself and are not successful, don’t keep spinning your wheels. Schedule a consultation with an experienced probate attorney and get the guidance you need to handle things in the most advantageous and efficient way possible. Most attorneys will offer you a free consultation and even if you have to pay for an hour or so of time, it will be well worth it in the long run.

What is your favorite aspect of your job?  

The death of a loved one is a difficult and stressful time. Being able to explain the process to people and to assure them that they can get through this. Letting them know they aren’t alone in this process and that we will help them get through it and will be there to answer their questions seems to be an amazing comfort to most people. It makes my day when a spouse or child breathes that sigh of relief that at least in one way they can bring some sort of order to the chaos they are feeling.

What is your favorite way to spend your free time?  

I enjoy spending time with friends whether it is just playing cards or discovering a new restaurant. But I especially enjoy spending time with my three granddaughters.


While the death of a loved one is difficult and can be extremely stressful, we are here to help make this time more manageable. If you need assistance or would like to schedule a consultation, contact our Grayslake office at 847-223-1500.