The emotions that accompany losing a loved one are varied and intense.
While on the emotional roller coaster, the last things you want to think about are account numbers, financial statements and paperwork. However, at some time you will have to get to this topic. The loss of a loved one demands a surprising amount of administrative work and, often, financial decision-making.
This article will not attempt to cover legal issues in estate planning, tax implications and so on – the situations vary greatly based on individual circumstances and differing state and local laws. Instead, you may want to consider the following areas as a guide to approaching the administrative tasks associated with the loss of a loved one.
Contact the professionals after the loss of a loved one
First and most important, seek professional financial assistance. To safeguard assets and ensure that the wishes of the deceased are honored, you need to consult promptly with the professionals who may have helped the deceased with financial planning or arrangements for the estate which may include an estate lawyer, financial advisor, certified public accountant (CPA) and/or insurance agent.
It’s the responsibility of these professionals to assist the heirs of a client who has passed. The first step is meeting with the lawyer who helped with a will or estate planning. They can assist with laying out a timetable of actions that need to be taken to meet legal requirements. If there was no lawyer, find one who specializes in estates. Other financial professionals can help identify assets and accounts.
Losing a loved one is a very emotional experience, so when you talk to attorneys or financial professionals take notes, bring along a trusted relative or friend, and ask each professional to summarize the basic facts in a letter or memo that you can use as a reference.
Depending on the advanced planning done by the deceased – and how thoroughly you were briefed on estate plans before the loved one’s death – you may have extensive financial information close at hand … or you may need to embark on a search for information.
Begin gathering documents you will need to deal with the financial details:
- Death certificate – Order certified copies of death certificates from the local or state office of vital records. You probably will need eight to 10 certified copies of the death certificate to make the needed changes to accounts with banks, brokerage firms, Social Security, pension funds and so on. There is a fee for extra copies but securing them and having them on file will save you time and trouble in the long term.
- Social Security information – You will need the Social Security number of the deceased as the basic identifier to pinpoint bank accounts and other assets. Also, if the deceased was receiving Social Security benefits, you will need to notify the Social Security Administration of his or her death and investigate the eligibility for survivor benefits for a spouse or children.
- Marriage certificate – If you are the spouse, you will need copies of your marriage certificate to file for survivor benefits and perhaps other assets.
- Life insurance – You should contact the life insurance agent who worked with the deceased, or any life insurance company named in their policies, to confirm the existence of any life insurance and determine the procedures for making a claim.
- Will and trusts – A will and/or trusts are the documents that control distribution of assets following your loved one’s passing. Typically, copies of these documents, along with other vital papers, can be found in a secure storage place such as a desk, file cabinet or safe deposit box. The lawyer who worked with the deceased would either know about these documents or should be made aware of these documents.
Whether working with an estate lawyer or on your own, begin to make inventories of all financial assets, real estate and other property. Depending on the deceased person’s planning and communication method, assembling a complete listing of assets could be a laborious, time-consuming task.
For each asset, you will need the account number, last available statement, bank or financial firm’s name, address and phone numbers, and account representative’s name. Life insurance policies, some bank accounts and individual retirement accounts (IRAs) name beneficiaries in case of death, so you will also need this information.
Similarly, you will need to compile a list of debt or obligations including account numbers and firms, addresses and phone numbers, and whether these are joint obligations with a surviving spouse or relative. Consult with an estate lawyer if you have any question.
An accountant or tax professional can advise you on how to handle possible tax returns for the deceased person, or on rules that apply to widows or widowers who have filed joint returns.
Be diligent, not rushed
With all of the emotional pressures and physical exhaustion that accompany the loss of a loved one, it is important not to feel overwhelmed, but that is often easier said than done. Help yourself by asking for help on administrative tasks from people you trust, including close friends or family, plus legal and financial professionals.
Be cautious when receiving advice from well-meaning friends who say, “You shouldn’t think about financial details.” Sure, not everything needs to be done right away but you may have bills to pay or need to identify which accounts are available for your use. It is better to start on these tasks within a reasonable time and an estate lawyer can help identify any legal deadlines.
As with many other areas of your life, in financial matters, you need to take one day at a time.
What to do next
- Talk with an estate lawyer, legal professionals and financial advisors.
- Gather needed documents like death certificates and insurance policies.
- Assemble inventories of assets and debt obligations.
- Pace yourself and ask for help with administrative tasks.