You’ve lost a loved one, now what?
One of the most stressful experiences in life is losing a loved one. The last thing you need after the funeral is more stress from settling their estate. But not everyone has an attorney, accountant, and financial planner to take care of settling the estate. For those who are do-it-yourselfers, having an Estate Checklist [https://dinerwearadultbibs.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Estate-Checklist.pdf] can help.
Even if you do have a professional to take care of the estate, this list can help you make sure you haven’t missed anything. After all, each of these professionals has their own expertise and won’t necessarily think of items they don’t normally handle. And some things will just be on you to take care of.
Every estate is different. What you will need to do will depend on your situation. For example, if there is a surviving spouse or dependents, you’ll want to make sure they are taken care of going forward. So, thinking in broad terms, what you need to do includes:
- Maintaining the household for a surviving loved one, or until the home can be sold.
- Reconciling debts and expenses.
- Transferring account ownership and/or dispersing financial assets.
- Distributing personal property.
There will likely be costs for reconciling an estate. It is highly recommended that you keep track of all expenses, including receipts so that the expenses can be paid for by the estate and to avoid conflict in case anyone questions or disputes those expenses.
Who Can Help
Some of the people/organizations you may need for handling the estate are:
- Social Security (800-772-1213; socialsecurity.gov) and other agencies from which the deceased received benefits, such as Veterans Affairs (800-827-1000; va.gov), to stop payments and ask about applicable survivor benefits.
- Police, to have them periodically check the deceased’s house if vacant.
- Utility companies, to change or stop service, and postal service, to stop or forward mail, if necessary.
- Life insurance agent, to get claim forms.
- Agency providing retirement and/or pension services, to stop/change monthly checks and get claim forms.
- A trust and estates attorney, to transfer assets and/or assist with probate issues.
- Accountant or tax preparer, to determine whether an estate-tax return or final income-tax return should be filed.
- The person’s investment adviser, for information on holdings.
- Bank, to find accounts and safe deposit box.
Things to Know
- Power of Attorney is no longer valid after the person passes.
- A trust is only helpful if it has been funded. In other words, if the assets (a.k.a. accounts) have been put in the name of the trust or if the trust was named as beneficiary.
- If no beneficiary has been named on an account, you may require a signature guarantee medallion, which may require a letter of authority from probate court in order, to get the asset transferred. If the amount is small enough, you may be able to forgo this additional step. It will depend on the institution.
- Estates that are complicated or involve conflict will benefit from legal representation.
- Death Certificate (several copies)
- Social Security Card – or number (you can find it on the last income tax return)
- Most recent account statements for bank accounts, utility bills, mortgage, car loan, and other monthly transactions
- Title for real estate property(ies)
- Title for car
- Last Income Tax Return (this can help you assess list of assets)
- Insurance policies: Life, home, and auto
When you lose someone before retirement age:
Most of the above is based on someone who is retired. If your loved one was still working, and you have years to go before retirement, here are a few other things you may need to do:
- Contact their employer regarding any benefits you may be entitled to. Determine if there is life insurance, a retirement account or pension plan you are entitled to.
- Determine health insurance for surviving dependents. Death of an employee is a qualifying event for COBRA, which, in the event of death, can be used for 3 years. But it can be expensive. Medicaid is also an option as is, at the time of this writing, the ACA Marketplace. An Insurance Broker can help guide you through your options.
- Contact Social Security, even if they weren’t receiving benefits. You may be eligible for survivor benefits if you are caring for a child 16 or under. You are also eligible for the one-time benefit.
In the end:
Like a fingerprint, each of our lives include a unique set of circumstances. The most important step in settling an estate is knowing all the assets and liabilities the deceased had. Once you know what, there are always resources to help you figure out how handle each item.
Keep in mind that it will take time to settle the estate. Even simple estates can feel like a lot. One of the best things I did early on in the process, that has been very helpful, was starting a notebook to log each transaction and interaction. I logged each call, with the date, phone number, who I talked to, and what we discussed. That book has been very helpful for follow up. It can also be very helpful if you have family members questioning what you are doing. We also set up files for each of the general categories we were handling, such as insurance, health benefits, retirement accounts, bank accounts, etc. The greatest stress reducer is organization. It will serve you in more ways than one.
And through it all, find some time to celebrate the memories and value your lost loved one for how they made you feel, not for what they’ve left behind.