Of course, it’s always tough when a loved one dies. It’s already emotionally draining, but if you are immediate next of kin and/or the named Executor, there’s even more stress. Depending on the complexity of the estate, there could be an enormous amount of work required to handle the person’s estate.
A few things should be done as soon as possible. If there is a house or property, that means changing the locks if necessary. It’s your job to protect the estate. The next biggest thing is to find and gather documents. Hopefully there’s a Will, along with some sort of filing system for bills, tax receipts, and other financial information. Collect as much of this paperwork as you can, plus credit card statements, bank statements, life insurance policies, car titles, and anything else you can think of. It can always be thrown out later.
While you’re searching for documents, check to see if your loved one pre-planned his or her funeral with a pre-needs agreement with a funeral home. Even if there is one, you need to determine if it was fully paid for or if there was a life insurance policy for this purpose.
At the time of the funeral, you will be asked about death certificates. I always advise my clients to get at least 10 of them. If you know that there are complicated finances involved with a multitude of financial institutions, you may want to get more. They’re pretty inexpensive and are much harder to obtain after the fact.
If you are the named Executor in the Will, you need to begin the probate process as soon as possible to get appointed. If there is no Will, then an Administration proceeding will need to be commenced for you to become the Administrator of the estate.
Many things can wait until you become appointed, but if a loved one lived alone, it will be important to call the electric company, water provider, cable provider, phone companies, etc. to stop service and avoid any additional charges. Make sure that automatic payments are stopped. If any bills are due, you have the choice of paying them personally and then being reimbursed by the estate or letting the creditor know that the person has passed and that they will be paid as soon as possible. This should be done by phone and in writing just to make sure.
If you have access to the online accounts of the deceased, you may want to consider changing the passwords for access. This will guard against anyone looking to steal your loved one’s identity, and prevent others from gaining access to account information they should not have.
Once you have been appointed as Executor or Administrator, you need to get in touch with all of the financial institutions. Unfortunately, unless you’re the spouse, most of these companies won’t talk to you until you have the appointment. Finding all the banks, etc. is often a challenge, because most people have multiple bank accounts, plus various investment accounts, pension providers, loans, credit cards, and insurance companies. If you’re not sure of all the accounts, check back tax returns. They often have a wealth of information.
With respect to the decedent’s income, often the funeral home will contact the Social Security Administration to stop payments. Check to see if they have done this. You’ll also need to see if the decedent’s pensions stop or roll to a spouse or child. If there is an IRA or other type of retirement account, see if it becomes an inherited account or if it can be rolled over into yours. This can normally only be done for spouses.
Lastly, as counter intuitive as it may sound, do as little as possible and only what you need to do. As I said in the beginning of this article, losing a loved one is a stressful, tiring, and emotional experience. You may be pressured to move assets or open new financial accounts. Unless you absolutely have to, don’t. Decisions about money and property should be made with a clear head. You need to take care of the past before you can think about the future.