When a loved one passes away, you will face many responsibilities, from making funeral plans to closing out financial affairs. These responsibilities will add stress to what is already a difficult and emotional time. Getting organized and knowing what steps you need to take will help reduce some of that added stress. Below is a chronological checklist to help you organize and close your loved one’s affairs.
WITHIN FIRST TWO WEEKS
- First and foremost, you will need original death certificates. Everyone from banks, to insurance companies, to credit card companies may request at least a photocopy if not an original, so obtain at least 10 original death certificates if possible. You can ask the funeral director to assist with getting multiple originals, or you can order extra originals from the state where the death occurred. Each original will likely cost between $10 – 50.
- If your funeral director has not done so, contact Social Security to stop benefit payments. A recipient must survive a whole month in order to be entitled to Social Security for that month, so a payment received on the month of death will need to be returned. Further, if applicable, you should contact Social Security to ask about surviving spouse benefits.
- Notify your loved one’s health insurance company and inform them of the passing. Otherwise, premium payments will continue to be paid and you will have to contact them for a refund. The health insurance company will let you know if there is anything you need to do or if anything changes with the policy as a result of the death.
- Contact other companies that provide services that are no longer needed, such as credit card companies, gym or club memberships, etc. While you can get refunds for payments made/late fees charged after death, it is much easier to notify these companies as soon as possible. Some credit card companies accept less than the balance due if you offer to pay sooner, especially if the company believes it may take some time for you to access funds.
- Notify credit reporting agencies and the DMV.
WITHIN TWO TO FOUR WEEKS
- Search home, safe deposit box or other places where important paperwork was kept for current estate planning documents (Wills, trusts), bank statements, brokerage statements, retirement account statements, life insurance policies, deeds, stock certificates, etc.
- Contact financial advisors, accountants, banks, brokerages, pension plans, and insurance companies to help identify existing accounts, ownership on those accounts, designated beneficiaries on those accounts and account values. If you are co-owner or beneficiary on an account or policy, you should be able to get this information with a death certificate. If the account or policy has no co-owners or named beneficiaries, you may need to be appointed as administrator or executor of the estate by the court in order to get this information.
- Notify life insurance companies and other financial institutions to request and submit death benefit claims forms or change of ownership forms. If you are a beneficiary of a policy or an account, identify yourself and request death benefits claims forms. If you are a co-owner of a policy or an account, identify yourself and request change of ownership forms to retitle the policy or account to your name alone.
- Make a list of bank accounts, brokerage accounts, life insurance policies, retirement accounts, real property deeds or cooperative stock certificates, car titles and any other assets owned at the time of passing.
- Make a list of important ongoing and necessary bills, such as mortgages, car payments, property taxes, maintenance fees, insurance premium payments, etc. If possible, these bills should be paid timely. Plan to reimburse the person fronting the money if that person is not a beneficiary of any of the decedent’s assets or estate.
WITHIN FOUR TO SIX WEEKS
- Search unclaimed funds database in the state where your loved one lived.
- Meet with a trusts and estates attorney. You can ask for referrals from friends or family. Often, the attorney who drafted your Wills can handle the probate or administration proceeding, or can refer an attorney to handle the proceeding. Typically, this involves filing paperwork, along with an original death certificate and the original Will (if one exists), with the court in the county where the decedent lived. The attorney can also advise whether the decedent had a taxable estate and, if so, prepare the estate tax return and advise how those estate taxes should be paid.
- Meet with an accountant to discuss the preparation of the final income tax return and if necessary, any fiduciary income tax returns moving forward.
AFTER SIX WEEKS
- Once the court appoints you as executor, you have legal authority to act on behalf of the Estate. Please keep in mind that you only need this authority to act with respect to assets where you are neither a designated beneficiary (e.g., life insurance) nor a joint owner on a particular asset (e.g., a jointly owned home). When appointed by the court, you can administer any asset in accordance with the Will or, if there was no Will, in accordance with the laws of the state of residency. You may need to open a checking account titled to “Estate of [Decedent]” in order to deposit funds and pay estate administration expenses, debts or claims.
- In New York, creditors generally have 7 months from the date someone is appointed as administrator or executor of the estate to make claims against the estate. After all expenses, debts and claims have been paid, any remaining funds or assets can be distributed in accordance with the Will or state law.
- The trusts and estates attorney can assist you with the administration of your loved one’s estate. The whole process can take, on average, about 1-2 years to fully wrap up (or longer with a particularly complicated estate).