By Jayne W. Di Vincenzo AIF ®, CEP ®, CEO, Wealth Advisor, Fiduciary EDGE Advisors, LLC
When a loved one dies, it's always a difficult time. If you're being counted on to tie up the deceased person's legal and financial matters, that can only add to that stress.
My hope is that this general checklist helps reduce that stress.
Delegate responsibility. Executors and family members aren't expected to do everything. You may need to contact an estate attorney, financial advisor or an accountant. Also, contact two or three trusted and responsible relatives or friends to help you with the rest of this list.
Learn about pre-arranged funeral plans. Ideally, you'll know before the death if your loved one made funeral and burial plans. If that didn't happen, enlist other family members to help you make those arrangements -- everything from choosing a funeral home and a casket to finding pallbearers and eulogizers. If your loved one served in the military, contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to see if it will help with funeral and burial expenses.
Get the death certificate. In fact, get as many as 10 certified copies of the death certificate. You'll need to send them to insurance companies, financial advisers, banks, government agencies, investment companies and other entities that need proof of death. Sometimes the funeral home will do this for you.
Contact the employer. The employer will tell you if your loved one had an insurance policy or a 401(k) plan that the financial advisor may know nothing about. Also ask about how much pay and vacation time the deceased person earned.
Make a list of assets and bills. If you're not the executor, share it with him or her. This information is vital to the probate process.
Schedule a meeting with an attorney who specializes in estate planning and probate. Ideally you can meet with your loved one’s attorney and better yet, the attorney who wrote the will. If you can’t reach them or want to obtain a second opinion, find an attorney with estate planning expertise to review things you have questions on. Additionally, they can be helpful if there is a Trust to fund (called a Testimentary Trust), or other special instructions you’re not comfortable handling alone.
Take the will to probate court. Assuming there's a will, some executors are comfortable walking through the process alone or reducing costs by doing some of the errands themselves. If so, you’ll need to take it to the probate court office, where court employees will make sure debts are paid and beneficiaries receive what's due to them. Probate is the process of retitling assets and is a public process, meaning that the general public has access to your loved ones records and estate information.
Investments and retitling of accounts. If your loved one named beneficiaries, the estate settlement process will be a lot simpler and those assets will not be included in the Probated estate (but will be included in the gross estate for tax reporting purposes). Typically accounts that have a beneficiary named are IRAs, 401(k)s, Transfer on Death (TOD) accounts, joint accounts and annuities and insurance products. You will need to reach out to each of the investment firms and provide a death certificate. They will initiate the process of checking beneficiaries and obtaining beneficiary information required to retitle those accounts in the name of the beneficiary (typically dates of birth, socials, and address, phone), who can choose to move them to whatever firm/advisor they choose once the assets are retitled in their name.
Find out about government benefits. The most obvious may be the Social Security Administration, which sometimes offers benefits to spouses, children and other dependents. On the flipside, Social Security expects you to return benefits for the deceased person that were received after the death.
Prevent identity theft. Contact one of the three major credit agencies: Equifax, TransUnion or Experian. The agency that receives it will alert the others. Also contact credit card companies, email providers and the motor vehicle department. They'll all need death certificates.
Notify local voting officials. You'll want to remove the deceased person from the voting rolls.
Secure valuables. If your loved one lived alone, make sure friends and relatives don't help themselves to jewelry, furniture, china, coin collections and other valuables.
Forward mail. Again, if the deceased person lived alone, contact the U.S. Postal Service to have their mail forwarded to the executor.
Don't forget about pets. Make sure any pets have a good home to go to, and keep in mind that they're also grieving, so they'll need caretakers who have time to give a lot of love.
Cancel services. That means cable, internet, streaming services, and cell phones. Wait to cancel utilities if your loved one's house needs to be sold or if you need time to empty an apartment.
Hopefully, this gets you headed in the right direction. We are here to help walk you and our clients through each step of the way, so feel free to reach out if we can assist you or a loved one that needs help.