I thought I’d start out the New Year with a cheery blog. Okay, not funny. But, the subject is on my mind because I am finishing up the final stage of my brother’s estate who died a few years ago. I have learned a lot in the process. This blog is meant to help you get started with some of the important tasks to do regarding the departed’s finances that will make things much easier if attended to soon after the death.
Get the Death Certificate
Typically the funeral home supplies the death certificate. You can request several copies from the funeral home—you’ll need them. They are generally less expensive at this time, and will save you trips to the county vital records office for additional copies. Ten copies is not excessive, especially if there is property to be sold.
Contact the Social Security Administration
Even if the deceased was not receiving benefits, you want to notify them. Call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213. (The funeral home may contact them for you.) Do this for a few reasons:
- Survivors may be eligible for benefits
- Prevent identity theft (yes, stealing the identity of the dead is a thing)
- Learn if you must return any payments received (payments received for the month of death may have to be returned to Social Security)
Set Up a Filing System
You will thank yourself for this. Keep:
- Death certificates
- Copies of all correspondence
- Detailed notes of all phone calls, etc.
- Receipts for all expenses including the funeral, documents, mailing, etc.
- Medical bills for the deceased
- Other debts
- Tax returns
- And more, depending on the complexity of the estate
Report the Death to the Credit Bureaus
Identity thieves do watch obituaries. Sadly, family members may even seize the opportunity. Send a letter and copy of the death certificate (originals usually not necessary) to each credit bureau. It is worth the extra cost to send certified mail.
- Equifax P.O. Box 105873 Atlanta, GA 30348 (800) 685-1111
- Experian P.O. Box 2104 Allen, TX 75013-2104 (888) 397-3742
- TransUnion P.O. Box 1000 Chester, PA 19022 (800) 916-8800
Notify Financial Institutions and Creditors
Hopefully, your loved one left financial records in good order and it will be easy to track down where money is and where money is owed.
- If there are Payable-on-Death beneficiaries on the accounts they can claim the money immediately with a death certificate.
- Creditors will close accounts to prevent unauthorized use.
Change Mailing Address (if the deceased lived alone)
- You’ll need valid proof that you are the appointed executor or administrator and authorized to manage the deceased person’s mail.
- Complete a change of address form at a Post Office location.
- Have someone bring in the mail until the address change is in effect. Piled up mail alerts thieves that a home is not occupied.
- Stop advertising mail by registering on the Direct Marketing Association “Deceased Do Not Contact” list at DMAChoice.org.
Order Credit Reports
This is a useful way to identify all debts. Order through Annual Credit Report Request Service (find form on our website.) You will need to provide proof that you are authorized to receive the reports, such as a court-issued document.
Don’t Rush to Divvy Up Money Left by the Deceased or Pay Their Debts
States have a hierarchy of debts to be paid by the estate of a deceased person. This includes possibly repaying the state for medical assistance received. Know the laws of your state first, or survivors may be held responsible.
Get Legal Advice
That last point speaks to the importance of legal advice. There are many laws governing estates, they vary, and can change. An estate attorney can save a lot of time and headaches for the person charged with administering the estate.
The list above is to help get you started—it is by no means complete. Do these things whether the estate goes to probate or not, if there is a will or not, and even if there are zero assets.
Most of us will be faced with losing a loved one. It isn’t easy on so many fronts. Having a starting point in dealing with an estate can help. If you find yourself in this position, I wish you comfort and peace.
Author Mary Ellen Kaluza is a Certified Financial Counselor with LSS Financial Counseling and she specializes in credit, budget, and debt counseling.