When a loved one passes away, there are many issues the survivors need to navigate during an already extremely difficult time. Having to make funeral plans, notify friends and family and start the grieving process can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, there are also several critical financial items that need your attention.
1. Request death certificates
The very first step is to contact the Vital Statistics office in the state in which the death occurred and obtain several certified copies of the death certificate. You also may be able to request it through the funeral home. You will need to order enough copies for each of the entities listed below. Some of the recipients may accept a faxed copy, but most will require an original certified document. There may be a charge for each copy requested.
2. Probate the estate
If the decedent had a will, it probably named an executor who is in charge of carrying out final wishes and distributing property. If the person died without a will (also known as “intestacy”), state law typically provides a list of those who could serve in this capacity. It is important to note that since property transferred at death is governed by state law, the details will differ from state to state. If you are named executor, you should obtain letters testamentary, which provide proof that you have a right to handle the deceased’s financial affairs during probate. You may want to consult an estate attorney to help you through the probate process.
3. Notify financial institutions
Once you receive the death certificates and the letters testamentary, you should contact any insurance company where the decedent had a policy. This may include employer-sponsored plans, individually owned policies, mortgage cancellation plans and policies issued by associations, banks and credit cards companies. Some of these policies, especially the last three, may only provide benefits if the death resulted from an accident. Other policies may provide an additional benefit for accidental death.
You will need to notify all savings and investment companies where the decedent had an account. This includes both individually owned accounts and joint accounts. It is critical to understand that the account will most likely be frozen once the company has been notified of the death, so plans should be made in advance to prevent any hardship this might cause. You will have to provide a death certificate and letters testamentary for each account and then set up new accounts in the names of the heirs in order to receive the assets. You should also contact any pension providers to determine whether the pension benefit includes survivor payments.
Contact mortgage companies and other loan providers, including credit card companies. Since these debts are now obligations of the deceased’s estate, they will have to be paid off by the assets of the estate. One exception is if the decedent was married. In that instance, the responsibility may transfer to the spouse.
4. Contact service providers
Contact utility companies and other service providers to change or discontinue service. Some services like cable television, Internet, and telephone lines can be cancelled immediately, while it may make sense to delay others like electric, water, gas, and lawn care so that the home can be properly maintained. It might be helpful to look over bank and credit card statements to identify other less obvious monthly recurring charges, like gym memberships, home security systems and club membership dues.
5. Notify government agencies
Finally, notify appropriate government agencies to start and/or end benefits. The surviving spouse or children may qualify to receive a one-time $255 death benefit from the Social Security Administration. Additionally, survivor benefits may be available for children under age 16 (or disabled children of any age) and to spouses or ex-spouses (if they were married to the deceased for at least 10 years). Interestingly, both a spouse and an ex-spouse may be able to qualify for unreduced survivor benefits at the same time.
If the deceased served in the armed forces, there may be Veteran’s Administration survivor benefits payable to the spouse and/or the children of the deceased veteran. While some benefits require that the death occur while on active duty, others just require service. Since these benefits are fairly complicated, you should contact the VA to determine if you qualify.
Facing the death of a loved one can be a daunting journey. Knowing what to do with your finances when it happens can at least bring some comfort and order to the survivors.