I Have the Death Certificate...Now What?
It can be overwhelming to think about all the things that need to happen to properly close down a person’s accounts and deal with property after they’ve died. Most people aren’t experienced in this process and don’t have a network of professional contacts to tap into…as they shouldn’t be.
You’ll find that not much can be done without copies of the death certificate in hand. Once you have those, you can start contacting companies and professionals.
Step 1: Get organized
Before you get started, it’s a good idea to gather all of the important documents that you possibly can. This will save you a lot of time (and maybe money) later on.
Look for a will, trust, or other legal documents. You’ll likely need their birth and marriage certificates, plus identifying documents such as their driver’s license, social security card, and/or passport. The other documents are dependent on what the deceased owned, such as title and registration for a car, or mortgage or deed for a house.
Put these documents together with the death certificate, as you’ll find that different accounts require some combination of these documents (or copies of them) as you contact them about closing or transferring ownership. Keep them in a safe place along with a record of what you have done and what still needs to be done.
Step 2: Figure out if you’ll need an attorney
Two important words to understand after someone has died are “estate,” which simply means everything a person OWES and OWNS at the time of their death, and “probate,” which is the court process in which a will is determined to be valid and a deceased person’s estate is distributed according to their wishes or the state’s laws.
Each state has different laws about what’s required after someone dies, but sometimes a lawyer is necessary and sometimes not. It’s helpful if you have someone who can help you understand your particular situation, and speak with an attorney if you’re not sure. Probate is typically a lengthy and complex process, and it’s best to get started on it as soon as you have your documents in order.
Step 3: Assess finances
Next, let’s talk about money. If there are benefits that need to be filed or applied for, such as life insurance payouts, Social Security survivor benefits, or veteran’s benefits, that should be started at this time. There are often many steps involved, so be prepared for the process to take a while.
You’ll need to get a holistic picture of the person’s financial situation. Compile a list of all bank accounts, credit cards, investments, and retirement accounts. Part of your responsibility (as executor, administrator, or otherwise responsible person) is to figure out what’s being paid for out of the deceased’s accounts. Looking at statements is usually the best way to determine what needs to be stopped, what needs to be updated, and what needs to stay the same for now.
The most important thing about finances at this time is to think carefully before freezing or closing bank accounts. It can take a while to uncover all accounts, and if the deceased is owed benefits or a refund (from deposits, insurance, etc) it can be difficult to receive that money if the account has already been closed.
Step 4: Think security
Finally, consider the safety and security of the deceased’s property and sensitive information. Thieves and fraudsters love an empty home or a dormant account, because they know it can take a while before anyone notices what they’ve done.
You may want to change locks and look into a security system for a home that’s vacant, have neighbors or friends check in, and have mail forwarded. You can also notify credit bureaus of the death, which keeps anyone from opening new accounts in their name.
Everyone’s situation is different, so it’s almost impossible to find one checklist or resource that will cover everything that you’re dealing with in the estate. After loss professionals come alongside executors to help figure out what needs to be done when, make sure nothing falls through the cracks, and ease the burden that falls on the family.
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