Financial Decisions After a Death*


Faced with the death of a loved one, many survivors find it difficult to think clearly and don't know where to start with financial decisions and responsibilities.

Other than relatives and friends, whom should you call? What legal documents should you gather, and where are they kept? Did the deceased leave instructions for the funeral? Who issues the death certificate and how many do you need?

The following information--compiled from the National Endowment for Financial Education and the Cooperative Extension Service--provides practical suggestions to help family members cope with the financial tasks that lie ahead.


Before the funeral

·         Contact proper authorities immediately so the death certificate can be filed. Notify the police if the person died at home. Ask medical personnel whom to call if the person died in a hospital or hospice facility.

·         Notify family, friends, and other key individuals. Call the deceased's attorney and ask about important estate planning documents such as a will and letter of instruction.

·         Contact the Social Security Administration about the possibility of a one-time death benefit payment to the surviving spouse and minor children.

·         Notify the deceased's employer to start the process of employee benefit payments. If the deceased was a veteran, call the Department of Veterans Affairs and ask about burial assistance and other benefits.

·         Plan the memorial service and/or funeral. A letter of instruction helps you carry out your loved one's wishes.

·         Determine whether payment arrangements had been made through a trust account, life insurance policy, or funeral home.

·         Ask the funeral home for written documentation of all costs and don't feel pressured to spend more than you can afford. 

After the funeral 

·         Read the will as soon as you can after the funeral, if not before, to determine how property is to be distributed after paying expenses, taxes, and debts. The will names an executor commonly called a personal representative--as well as a guardian for minor children. If there is no will, the court will appoint an administrator to settle the estate and divide property according to state laws.

·         Contact the courthouse recorder. Ask for additional certified death certificates, in addition to those furnished by the funeral director. You'll need certified copies for each place where the executor will apply for death benefits or where names need to be changed on financial accounts or other legal documents. The recorder also can help you change property ownership and registrations (auto, house, and farm), following advice of an attorney.

·         Make a file for all the documents you need for filing claims. Having these documents in one place will help ease your stress:

o   Death certificates

o   Deceased's Social Security number

o   Social Security numbers for spouse and minor children

o   Certified birth certificates or adoption papers for each family member

o   Citizenship papers

o   Marriage license or divorce records

o   Military service or discharge records

o   Insurance policies

o   Will or trust documents

o   Financial institution records, account numbers, and safe deposit box information

o   Property records

o   Credit card and debt information

o   Investment records

o   Employment benefit and pension records

o   Recent tax returns

·         Contact the deceased's financial institution to discuss how names are listed on accounts, whether you can access money from those accounts, and whether there is a safe deposit box. A death certificate may be required to change accounts.

·         Contact investment advisers and insurance agents. File claims to receive death benefits from life insurance policies.

·         Ask the deceased's employer to start the process of paying employee benefits--final paycheck, accrued vacation and sick leave, pension benefit, life insurance, accident insurance, and so on. Ask about health insurance continuation and costs for survivors.

·         Ask your accountant or tax attorney about filing federal and state tax returns.

Finally, consider compiling your own financial notebook as a gift to loved ones. A financial notebook is a personal blueprint to help family members figure out your financial affairs in the event of serious illness, injury, or death. The notebook should include medical directives, letters of instruction, copies of wills and trusts, powers of attorney, names of financial advisers and insurance agents, insurance policies, personal property list, net worth statement, financial institution and credit card account numbers, recent pension benefits statements, Social Security earnings and benefits statements, and location of all important documents.

*This article is not intended as legal advice. Readers should seek independent advice from a registered professional investment advisor before making investment decisions.