Loss of a Loved One

The loss of a loved one can be an overwhelming experience. Dealing with your emotions as you settle that person's estate can make the job even more difficult.

Not everyone has a lot of property, but most adults have some affairs that must be finalized. Closing an estate of any size requires time and effort. Here are some ways to make the job easier.

Step 1: Get help if you need it
If things look pretty complex, or if you've been named the administrator or executor of the will, you may want to seek advice from a lawyer, accountant, tax specialist or financial planner, depending on the issues at hand.

Fees for these advisors are generally high. To reduce costs, shop around for prices and do as much background work as you can on your own (for example, a lawyer may charge you $150 to hand-deliver papers you could pick up yourself). Agree on a charge, know what it covers and get it in writing.

Step 2: Collect all documents

  • Death, birth and marriage certificates
  • Divorce papers
  • Social Security Number
  • Income tax returns
  • Insurance policies
  • Bank books
  • Bank statements
  • Credit cards and statements
  • Stock certificates

Unless you are the executor of the will, you'll need a lawyer to help you retrieve these important documents if they are kept in a safe deposit box. Once you've gathered everything together, start a written record and keep track of your progress.

Note: Complete this step as quickly as possible. Some items, like Social Security benefits, have filing deadlines. Also, don't throw anything away. Even if premiums haven’t been paid recently, insurance policies may still be active.

Step 3: Make copies of legal certificates
Death certificates are required for life insurance, Social Security and other claims. Ask the funeral director for at least 12 certified copies. Photocopies aren't valid because a raised registrar's seal is required on each. Birth and marriage certificates are required for Social Security benefits, probate, etc.

Step 4: Contact the following organizations

  • Local probate office

Most property must go through probate, even if the deceased had a will. If you're the executor of the estate, call the probate office within 30 days of death. Usually, you'll be assigned a court date within 14 - 30 days of your call. You must bring certain information to court, so ask a probate clerk or a lawyer what to do.

  • Social Security

There are two types of benefits you may qualify for–Survivor's Benefits or a One-time Death Benefit. There are also different ways to sign up for them, depending on your Social Security status. Contact Social Security right away to find out what to do. Any delay could cost you payments. Call Social Security's toll-free number, 1-800-772-1213, from 7 a.m – 7 p.m., Monday-Friday. You can also visit Social Security online at www.ssa.gov.

  • The deceased's health insurer

There may be outstanding medical claims to file.

  • The deceased's life insurer

If the deceased had life insurance, you must file a claim to collect benefits. Call the company's claim office for details. Two forms are required–a statement of claim and a death certificate. Benefits can be paid as a lump-sum payment or spread out in varying amounts. You may consider asking for some money now and leaving the rest for future withdrawals.

  • The deceased's employer

Inquire about group insurance, pension funds, back vacation pay, etc. Most employers will help you with the paperwork. Pay close attention to health coverage. Spouses and dependents may still qualify after the death of the insured.

  • Credit card companies

Call the customer service number to find out if the deceased purchased credit life insurance, which may pay off the account balance.

  • Banks

If you had joint bank accounts with the deceased, you will need to make a request for release, which allows you to withdraw funds. Banks usually stop payment on checks as soon as a death notice has been made public. Call the bank to verify that this has been done.

  • Public services

Contact utility companies, the post office, newspaper delivery, etc., and notify them of the death.

Step 5: Transfer titles

  • Real estate

If the deceased was a joint owner of property, you must remove his or her name from the title. Check the will first for special instructions about property and consult your lawyer.

  • Vehicles/ boats/ mobile homes

Please consult your lawyer.

Step 6: Taxes

  • Income taxes

You will still need to file Federal Income Tax for the deceased by April 15. If you need an extension, call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040. They have a free booklet called "Tax information for Survivors and Executors and Administrators" (Publication 559). For more information, visit the IRS online at www.irs.ustreas.gov. You'll also have to pay any applicable state taxes for the deceased, so contact your state tax commissioner for details.

  • Property taxes

Property taxes must also be paid. Call your town or county treasurer's office or tax collector for specifics. After the property is transferred, the new owner must pay the tax.