What to do when someone you love dies
It's never easy dealing with the death of a loved one. Between grieving and handling the funeral and burial arrangements, it's not uncommon to feel overwhelmed. And you may feel more overwhelmed if you're also tasked with settling your loved one's financial affairs.
Maybe you were named the executor of the estate in the will. Or maybe those duties just fall to you because the deceased didn't have a will and you're next of kin. Or maybe you're the child of a grieving parent who needs help.
Whatever the case may be, if managing a loved one's estate falls on you, here are some of the key things you'll need to tend to.
Start by making a list of all the assets the deceased owned. This includes bank accounts, investment and retirement accounts, life insurance policies, and real estate. If you're not sure where to find this information, look at their most recently filed income tax returns. This can provide some clues about income and assets.
Get copies of the death certificate. You'll need to get official notarized copies as well as copies of the official death certificate. The funeral home can generally provide these to you. Some financial institutions and life insurance carriers will ask for this.
Promptly notify the Social Security Administration (SSA). If the deceased was collecting Social Security benefits, you'll need to notify the SSA promptly. Otherwise, the SSA may continue to deposit monthly checks into the deceased's bank account, and you will have to pay back any benefits received after their death. The funeral home will typically contact the SSA for you (provided you share the deceased's Social Security number with them). So before you add this to your to-do list, check in with the funeral home director. It's also worth contacting the SSA to see if someone is eligible for survivor benefits.1
Leave at least one checking account open in the deceased's name. This is important in case you come across outstanding checks, such as a retirement account required minimum distribution (RMD) checks, that were written to the deceased before they died and hadn't been deposited. You can't "cash" a check written to the deceased, but you generally can write "for deposit only" on the back of the check and deposit it into an account in their name.
Retitle other financial assets. This includes checking and savings accounts, as well as stocks, bonds (including government bonds like EE and I bonds),2 and ETFs. You'll need to provide a copy of the death certificate. Jointly held assets can be transferred to the other person or people on the account. Any accounts that were held solely by the deceased can be retitled in the name of the beneficiary (or beneficiaries). Accounts held at a bank will typically require whoever is on the retitled account to come in to sign a signature card — even if they were a joint holder on the original account.
Leave a checking account open in the deceased's name. While you can't "cash" a check written to the deceased, you can deposit it into their account.
Contact an estate attorney early on. They can help you understand more thoroughly what you need to do. Different states have different rules about what paperwork needs to be filed, where it needs to be filed, and if estate tax or probate fees are owed. They can also help you navigate trickier transactions, like retitling or transferring real estate owned by the deceased, or handling an inherited IRA.
Cancel outstanding recurring bills. It's easy to forget about these if they are coming out of a bank account automatically. Look through the deceased's bank statements to find such bills. Common ones to look out for: self-pay health insurance premiums (including Medigap type plans), landline or cell phone, utilities, long-term care insurance, and life insurance premiums.
Contact former employers. You don't need to reach out to every former employer, just employers where the deceased may have a pension, a life insurance policy, health insurance, or a 401(k). Get a list of all benefits your loved one may have had. And don't assume just because you've had contact with a former employer that everything is settled. Sometimes the employer outsources things like pension obligations to a third party, and they may not contact that third party for you. (Again, if any payments are made to the deceased, you'll be responsible for paying this back.)
Forward mail. If no one is still living at the deceased's residence, have the post office forward all mail to you. The USPS has online instructions3 for how to stop or forward mail for someone who has passed away. You must be named executor of the estate in order to do this.
Contact Medicare supplement insurance carriers. When you report a Medicare recipient's death to the SSA, the SSA will report the death to Medicare. Medicare will cancel Parts A and B coverage and any Medicare Part D prescription drug benefits. However, if the deceased had a Medicare Supplement plan through a private insurance company, you will need to report their death to that plan so they can stop billing for the coverage. You can find the plan's contact information on their insurance card.
Contact life insurance policies. Depending on the particular company's rules and the size of the policy, you may or may not need to complete paperwork and submit a death certificate. If no living beneficiary is named (a not-uncommon problem if the policy was purchased by the deceased parents when they were born or if it's a small work-issued policy), there's typically an order of precedence4 that you'll follow to decide who get the payout. It goes like this:
- Surviving spouse.
- Children (split equally among all).
- Parents (split equally if both are still alive).
- The estate.
Important disclosure information
- Social Security Administration, "Survivors Benefits," accessed February 18, 2023. Back
- Treasury Direct, "Inheriting savings bonds as a named co-owner orbeneficiary," accessed February 18, 2023. Back
- USPS.com, "Mail Addressed to the Deceased," accessed February 18, 2023. Back
- OPM.gov, "Life Insurance: Beneficiary Order of Precedence," accessed February 18, 2023. Back
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