This guide is intended to help with the unfinished paperwork and decisions that need to happen but can be overwhelming after the death of a loved one. Over the upcoming weeks, you’ll likely feel like you’re on an emotional rollercoaster. We hope that you find comfort among friends and family during this time. We’re also here for you during this time by providing a guide that helps you walk this difficult path a bit less aimlessly. The information and suggestions within this guide are designed to assist you but shouldn’t replace professional guidance that may be necessary from an attorney, CPA, or financial advisor. Also, note that this is a general overview and checklist, and it may not be complete depending on your situation. We hope this information helps make the coming days and months a little easier.
PREPARE FOR FUNERAL COSTS
It’s important to discern your loved one’s intentions and to follow through with their wishes regarding funeral and burial plans, possible medical-research donations, and even charitable donations in lieu of flowers.
Costs for a funeral can vary quite a bit, but sage advice recommends budgeting $10,000 to cover most traditional costs. The Federal Trade Commission has a say in how funeral homes operate and offers a checklist to help you through this decision-making process.
OBTAIN MULTIPLE COPIES OF THE DEATH CERTIFICATE
You’ll need a certified death certificate any time you need to provide proof of the death—which means any time you want to collect property that belonged to the deceased person or claim a benefit that results from the death.
The two types of Certified Copies of Death Certificates issued:
Cause of death showing – typically required for:
• Life Insurance
• Employee Benefits: pension, annuities, 401K’s
• Auto Insurance (only if this was the cause of death)
• Personal Records: a copy for the family
Without cause of death showing – typically required for:
• Social Security (if a spouse or minor child is to claim death benefit)
• Veteran Administration (if eligible for death benefits) www.va.gov
• Title Transfers (real estate, titles of vehicles, boats, etc.)*
• Banking (checking, money market, safe deposit, credit cards)*
• Financial Advisors
• Income Tax (won’t accept with the cause of death listed)
• Probate Courts (won’t accept with the cause of death listed)
• Homestead Exemption (won’t accept with the cause of death listed)*
• Utility Companies (water, electric, internet, phone, etc.)
LOCATE THE WILL AND FILE WITH PROBATE
If you’re unsure if there’s a will or where it resides, try asking friends, family, and even their bank in case it resides in a safe deposit box. You’ll need to contact the personal representative (executor) and possibly a probate attorney. A valid will must be filed with the probate court (in the county of residence) within ten days of the date of death. You can file in person or by mail.
*The Bank, DMV and Homestead will make copies of the death certificate. Note that these may vary by state.
Within 30 Days:
MEET WITH YOUR FINANCIAL REPRESENTATIVE(S)
It’s critical that all parties involved understand the financial implications resulting from a death. You’ll want to discuss investment options, account ownership changes, beneficiary designations, and tax responsibilities.
KEEP A PHONE LOG OF RELEVANT CONVERSATIONS
You’ll have many conversations, and it’s important to remember who you talked with and what the outcome was. The log should include the date, the person’s name, and a summary of the conversation.
SETTLE ANY DEBTS
As you go through your loved one’s estate, be sure to gather documents from every possible expense that may need to be paid or canceled. If there are significant debts, alert the will’s executor since they’ll typically handle all final affairs, including paying ongoing charges.
Pay bills that may be delinquent or due within a few days, such as utility bills, secured loans, and car payments. Cancel subscriptions and memberships and check if a refund is possible for any payments made in advance.
PREPARE AND SEND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS The passing of a loved one creates a hectic and grief-filled situation, and you may find it challenging to keep track of who has done what in the days and weeks following the death of your loved one. To make sure that you don’t forget anyone during this chaotic time, you should keep a notepad and pen handy at all times.
Sending out cards is an emotional process, but getting out acknowledgments is necessary for the giver as much as the receiver. It’s never too late to send out cards for flowers, memorial donations, food, or spiritual remembrances.
NOTIFY INSURANCE COMPANIES AND PROVIDERS
Request and file appropriate forms for:
• Life Insurance
• Health Insurance
• Supplemental Medicare (Social Security will notify Medicare)
• Prescription Drug Plans
• Disability Insurance
• Travel and Accident Coverage
• Homeowner’s Insurance
• Automobile Insurance
(Note this is a perfect time to review the beneficiaries on your policies.)
NOTIFY SOURCES OF ANY RETIREMENT OR PENSION BENEFITS
Request and file appropriate forms for:
• Previous employers’ worker compensation
• Veterans Affairs
NOTIFY SOCIAL SECURITY
Notify the Social Security Administration of the death as soon as possible, so you don’t have to repay the government. If checks are a direct deposit, notify the bank of the death. Social Security is paid in arrears–the check you get for this month is for last month. A $255.00 death benefit is payable to a surviving spouse or a minor child only. Other follow up may be necessary to change or apply for benefits. The toll free number is: 1-800-772-1213.
Within 60 to 90 Days:
NOTIFY BANK(S) AND INVESTMENT ACCOUNTS
With proof of death, you should be able to transfer necessary accounts to the appropriate beneficiary. Certain accounts are set up as Payable on Death which means the assets transfer directly to the beneficiary outside of the probate process.
Once someone passes away their Social Security number loses its effective purpose. As a result a new tax ID number must be obtained from the IRS in order to authorize activities on behalf of the estate. Now is also the time to change ownership and tax identification number, if necessary. Also, leave one joint checking account open for at least one year to handle any payments owed to the deceased.
Savings, checking, money market, and CD accounts should be reviewed:
• Inquire about mortgage loans, installment loans, and credit card accounts. Each lending institution may have a policy regarding changes due to death. Also, check these accounts for any possible credit life insurance policy that may exist which would pay off the unpaid balance.
• Review who the authorized parties are on safe deposit boxes and make appropriate changes
• Cancel any direct deposit transactions
• Review IRA accounts and their beneficiaries
NOTIFY ALL CREDIT CARD COMPANIES
A public posting of a notice to creditors is the formal process necessary to keep creditors from surfacing later in life and demanding payments. Local laws determine the format and frequency of publishing these notices to ensure effectiveness.
You will want to cancel cards or transfer the account to the survivor if possible. Look at the monthly statement. The first name on each statement is the person who has the credit. The second name on the statement is an authorized user of the first person’s credit. If there is a second name, call the institution and tell them the first person passed away. There is a chance they will cancel the account and NOT give the credit to the second person.
Two inquiries to make:
• Inquire if there is credit life insurance coverage on unpaid balances
• Inquire as to their procedure for jointly held accounts
REAL ESTATE HOLDINGS AND ASSETS HELD JOINTLY
Non-probate assets include assets owned jointly with right of survivorship. They include any type of asset that bears a beneficiary designation to transfer it after the owner dies. (Sole-ownership probate assets must go through a court-supervised probate process after the owner dies, because this is the only way to get the asset out of the deceased owner’s name and into the names of the beneficiaries). As the new owner, you still need to “clear the title” by filling out and submitting the proper paperwork.
• In most states you need to record the death certificate (without cause of death) and a [YOUR STATE] Affidavit of No Estate Tax Due at the County Recorder or the Registrar of Deeds of the county of residence. The appropriate Affidavit of No Estate Tax Due for your state is issued by The [YOUR STATE] Department of Revenue.
• To be eligible for a reduction of tax burdens following the death of a spouse, you need to file for Widowed Persons Homestead Exemption. (Filed with the County Tax Assessors office). State tax relief carries from state to state, but most commonly involves a reduction in property tax.
• The transfer of automobile, RV and boat registration should be fairly easy but the procedure may vary depending on the existing registration and state. Typically a death certificate is required but check the website for [YOUR STATE] motor vehicle agency.
FORWARD MAIL AND REGISTER ON THE “DO NOT CONTACT” LIST
This process can be tremendously helpful for surfacing any unpaid bills, active subscriptions or accounts that should be closed. Taking a moment to register for the Do Not Contact List is an important step in minimizing the risk of future identify theft or fraud abuse
Within 6 Months:
CANCEL PASSPORT, DRIVER’S LICENSES AND VOTER REGISTRATION
Identity thieves often use techniques like “ghosting” to strike victims after death, causing a nightmare of problems for surviving family members.
CLOSE ALL SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS AND WIPE ANY COMPUTERS/PHONES
Many digital platforms have a unique process outlined for closing an account, while others like Facebook simply allow someone to memorialize the account. Be sure to talk with family members to reach an agreement before any accounts are closed, especially if you’re able to download or save any data. This is also true for email accounts.
Also, don’t forget to look for any files, purchased media or pictures stored on computer hard drives or cloud storage accounts.
NOTIFY ACCOUNTANT OR TAX PREPARER AND FILE TAXES
Generally, a Form 1040 for individual tax returns needs to be filed for the portion of year covering January 1 until the date of passing. Additionally, an IRS Form 1041 for estate and trust tax returns needs to be filed covering the remaining portion of the year from the date of death until December 31, and annually thereafter until the estate is closed. Depending on the primary residence of the individual, state income tax returns may also be required–again, both for the individual and for the estate. It’s important to be aware that other death taxes exist and should be considered, such as estate tax or inheritance tax.
If you are handling yourself, the following items might be helpful:
• Federal estate tax return Form 706
• Check if there is an estate or inheritance tax applicable in the deceased’s state of residence
• Gather all income tax documents (1099, W2, charitable contribution receipts, and medical payment receipts)
• IRS offers a booklet, Publication 559, called “Information for Survivors, Executors, and Administrators”
REVIEW OR COMPLETE A LIVING WILL OR LIVING TRUST FOR YOURSELF
DON’T CLEAN HOUSE YET
When listing the value of the estate in probate, jewelry, artwork, and collectibles held within the four walls count toward the value so don’t open the doors and give away treasures just yet. Online platforms like Atticus make it as easy as snapping a photo and uploading into one secure location.
Until you’ve verified that proper documentation is filed, don’t throw out anything that could later provide you important details and clarify questions.
Keep a joint checking or savings account open for at least one year.
Save the daily newspaper that lists stock, bond, and other investment valuations for the deceased’s date of death (keep the next day’s newspaper). While we are in a digital era, sometimes finding the stock value for a given date is as easy as opening the morning news. You may need this information to price investment holdings as of that date to file tax forms.
Upon final distribution of the estate’s assets, and assuming no ongoing family disputes or creditor claims exists, a final estate inventory report can be filed with the probate court to officially complete the process and close the estate. As is customary with most legal or tax-sensitive documents, it’s recommended (or pseudo required) to keep all statements, accountings, forms and tax returns for a period of 7-10 years as documentation in case any questions or problems later arise.
The content within this document is for educational purposes only and does not represent legal, tax or investment advice. Customers should consult with a qualified legal or tax professional regarding their unique situation.
1. “State by State Death Certificate Ordering Information” everlans. https://www.everplans.com/articles/state-by-state-death-certificate-ordering-information [Accessed Apr 2021]
2. “How Joint Owners Can Transfer Survivorship Property After Death” Nolo. https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/joint-owners-survivorship-32441.html [Accessed Apr 2021]