When you’ve lost a loved one you can be so overwhelmed with grief that the task of making funeral arrangements, notifying family and friends, and going through the grieving process drains every last ounce of mental/emotional energy from your body. The furthest thing from your mind is what to do next. Unfortunately, there are a few crucial tasks that will need your immediate attention during this difficult and heartbreaking time.
The existence of a will becomes public information when a person dies. If there’s a will it probably named an executor who is in charge of carrying out final wishes and distributing property. The executor also files the last will and testament with the court.
If you are named executor, obtain the necessary letters which provide proof that you have a right to handle the deceased’s financial matters. Depending on your situation, you may want to consult an estate attorney.
If the funeral home cannot provide certified copies, contact the Vital Statistics office in the state in which the death occurred and obtain multiple certified copies of the death certificate. You will need to order enough copies for Probate, Financial Institutions, service providers, and Social Security.
California law requires notarization of applications for copies of death and birth certificates when ordering through the mail. If ordering copies in person your signature does not need to be notarized. You won’t be able to order them over the phone. Furthermore, only an authorized person can receive a certified copy of a death certificate.
Contact any insurance company (individually owned, employer-sponsored, mortgage cancellation plans, and so on) where the decedent had a policy to find out what benefits are provided. Some insurance policies may only provide benefits if the death resulted from illness or an accident.
According to Consumer Reports (Feb. 2013) at least $1 billion in benefits from misplaced or forgotten life-insurance policies have gone unclaimed.
The California State Controller’s Office has an online Life Insurance Settlement Property Search tool. You can use it to find policies that list you as a beneficiary. The online search tool only lists beneficiaries who are or were in California. This is another instance where you may want to consult a lawyer before searching for information about someone’s life insurance. Nolo.com provides free legal information. Or contact an estate-planning attorney if you need further assistance. They can help guide you through the process.
You will need to notify all banks and/or investment firms where the decedent had an account, whether or not it was a joint account. Most likely the account will be frozen once they are notified of the death, so plans should be made in advance to prevent any financial hardship this may cause. You will have to provide a death certificate for each account and then set up new accounts in the names of the heirs in order to receive the assets.
Mortgage and Credit Card Companies:
These debts are now obligations of the deceased’s estate and will have to be paid off by the assets of the estate. If the decedent was married, the responsibility for paying of all loans, including credit cards, may transfer to the spouse; Depending on whether the spouse was simply an authorized user or if it was a joint account.
You’ll need to contact each credit card company and notify them of your spouse’s death. You can make the initial contact by phone, but be sure to follow up in writing and send the letter certified mail.
As a precaution, you should also contact the three major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion to report the death to prevent identity theft.
Credit card issuers can’t charge late fees or annual fees while the estate is being settled. Federal Trade Commission guidelines limit aggressive tactics for debt collectors trying to get money from the decedent’s relatives. The FTC has information for consumers about what to do when a loved one dies and debt collectors are calling. To learn more see: Paying the Debts of a Deceased Relative: Who Is Responsible?
Contact utility companies and other service providers to either discontinue service, or change the name on the account to yours if you’re the spouse. If you will be discontinuing services, some should be cancelled immediately (cable, internet, phone) while you may want to delay others (gas and electric, lawn care service).
Looking over bank and credit card statements will help you find other monthly recurring charges, such as homeowners association, home security systems and any membership dues.
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). Both a spouse and an ex-spouse may be able to qualify for unreduced survivor benefits at the same time.