It's easy to overlook an important task after a loved one passes away. Follow this checklist to help make a challenging time less confusing.
In addition to the emotional toll of losing a loved one, what to do when someone dies, from phone calls to paperwork, can be overwhelming and not what anyone wants to deal with when mourning their loved one.
It may seem like it's easier to put off doing these items until a later date, but quite often, there are things that have to be taken care of sooner rather than later. In addition, if paperwork for changes such as updating beneficiaries or retitling assets isn't completed in a timely manner, these tasks can become much more complicated.
Below is a list, in no particular order, of what to do when someone dies. Depending on your situation, there may be additional items as well.
Contact the funeral home to make arrangements. Ask them to help you get additional copies of the death certificate. You almost always need more copies than you think. On average, six to 10 copies are needed. Also, don't forget to consider arrangements for veterans if applicable.
Contact the Social Security Administration. Your benefits may change after a spouse's passing, so you'll need to notify them ASAP.
Review/cancel their health insurance. If your insurance is provided by a former employer, you will need to contact them.
Contact your spouse's pension company if applicable. Depending on the pension plan option originally selected by your spouse, you may be eligible to receive benefit payments.
Notify any life insurance companies and file a claim. This is typically a very easy process, so don't put this one off for later. The sooner you get the funds, the better to help you with all of the expenses. A search for life insurance policies may be conducted through the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
If your spouse was a veteran, contact the Department of Veterans Affairs to see if there are any benefits payable to you.
Notify banks, credit card companies, mortgage companies, insurance companies, and all other important bill-related companies. You may have accounts that need to be changed into your name or closed.
Complete an unclaimed property search for the decedent. This can be done via www.missingmoney.com or via your state's unclaimed property website.
Contact your CPA to discuss all of the issues unique to this tax year. This is a great time to retain a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) if you've been doing it yourself. Now is not the time to go it alone.
Update your own estate plan. If your spouse was your beneficiary, then you'll need to update all of your accounts, insurance policies, estate documents, etc., in order to reflect your new beneficiaries.
Contact your financial adviser. You will need to change account titles and file beneficiary paperwork for IRAs, 401k(s), etc.
Retitle any assets (real property, cars, etc.) in your spouse's name to your own. For cars, for example, you will need to go to your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) with a copy of the death certificate and the title.
Prepare and probate the estate. Your CPA or attorney can often help with this step. As an example, in New Jersey, if the estate doesn't qualify for simplified procedures, then the assets have to go through probate, which is handled by a court. The named executor will need to go to the Surrogate's Court to request to be formally appointed. If no one was named in the will or the person named isn't able/willing to serve, the court will appoint an “administrator.” The executor/administrator then has to handle the estate assets, any debts/taxes, and distributing property.
What Not to Do When Someone Dies
Just as important as all of these items are, it's equally important to understand the things that you shouldn't be doing as well. Do not do the following things:
Don't make big decisions that you are not required to make. For example, you don't need to decide to keep or sell the house and move away right now. You need time to adjust to your new situation, and snap decisions could be regrettable ones if they're made without a “clear head.”
Don't make major purchases. This is a time when I often see people spend more money than normal. Sometimes it's due to a lack of focus on finances, and sometimes it is due to wanting to “live for today.” Either way now is a really important time to focus on your finances and not let them get away from you.
Don't be quick to give away money or “stuff.” Often, I see clients giving away larger gifts to children after a spouse passes, including their own or the deceased spouse's possessions. First, you need to fully understand your new financial situation before you can adequately assess whether these gifts make sense. Giving away a spouse's possessions needs to be well thought out. If not, family rifts can occur because your spouse may have had conversations with children regarding certain possessions that you might not be aware of.
Lastly, you should take the time to organize/inventory all of your investments and assets. While this can be a timely and tedious task, it may help your family tremendously in the future. We have seen many instances where investment accounts were forgotten, or stock certificates discovered. Your loved ones are then faced with having to play detective to uncover everything. If you're not comfortable with them knowing these details, then make sure your financial advisor (especially if they don't manage all of your assets), CPA, and attorney have a complete list of all of your accounts.
I hope having this checklist to follow helps make a difficult time easier to navigate.
This article was written by T. Erick Reich, CIMA®, CFP®, CLU®, ChFC®, President and Founder, Reich Asset Management, LLC, for Kiplinger Magazine, and brought to you by the Ronald J. Fichera Law Firm, where our mission is to provide trusted, professional legal services and strategic advice to assist our clients in their personal and business matters. Our firm is committed to delivering efficient and cost-effective legal services focusing on communication, responsiveness, and attention to detail. For more information about our services, contact us today!
Estate laws vary from state to state. This material has been provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute either tax or legal advice.
Please seek professional tax services for more information and advice that will apply to your specific tax situation.
Content in this material is for general information only and is not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.