Jessica Ness, CFP®
Jessica Ness, CFP®Senior Vice President, Financial Adviser, Principal

The first days and weeks after a loss are the hardest; the adjustment is never easy. There is a flood of emotions at this difficult time and many related tasks are very confusing. Most of our clients have never had to deal with all the paperwork and decisions that accompany the passing of a loved one, until they do. Your responsibilities at the moment may seem overwhelming, which is normal.  But remember that there are resources you can draw on.

Planning ahead can make the process easier as my colleague, Tracey A. Baker, discusses in her article Plan Ahead for Uncertainty.

Our clients often turn to us for guidance on what to do in the days, weeks and months after their loved one passes.  Whether you are the executor, widow/widower, or a loved one trying to help, the entire process of settling an estate can be overwhelming and time consuming.  In this article, we break it down so you know what to focus on and when.

To be done within the first week:

  1. Make funeral arrangements

If your loved one left instructions for this, follow the steps that they gave you.  Otherwise, gather the family to decide what should be done to best honor your loved one’s memories and what the family can afford. Again, this is a very emotional time, so do your best to accept everyone’s feelings as you work towards a solution.

If the deceased served the country in the armed forces, you may also check with the Veterans Administration to see what they may provide in terms of burial or funeral services.

  1. Find a place for the pets

Again, your loved one may have left instructions for you on who will be taking care of the pets. Absent these instructions, see if any family members are willing to take them in, or look into a kennel that can provide for them until you’re able to make permanent decisions.

  1. Secure your loved one’s personal property

Make sure their license, phone, computer, house and vehicles are locked up to prevent theft or any other damage to the property. You may want to take small, easily stolen valuables to a safe deposit box.  If the phone automatically deletes text messages after a certain amount of time, you might consider turning that setting off.

Have the mail forwarded to you or whomever else is helping you. Until the house is disposed of, consider have it tended to by a landscaper.

  1. Notify their current and/or former employer

Your loved one may be owed a paycheck, pension, or have retirement or death benefits.  Inquire about survivor benefits and insurance policies as well.

To be done within the first month:

  1. Ask for death certificates from the funeral home

Many of the remaining steps will require a certified death certificate so that the companies or organizations involved can legally make the changes that you’re requesting.

Most people find that 15 copies are adequate. You can always ask for more if you need them.

  1. Locate the Last Will and Testament, and contact the estate attorney

Hopefully, you’ll know where these important papers are kept. If not, look in a filing cabinet or safety deposit box. If your loved one worked with an estate planning attorney, they should have a copy on file and may help with some of the necessary paperwork in the months ahead.

  1. Inventory and find the assets, and contact the Financial Planner

It is often helpful at this stage to collect documents and make a file system, if your loved one did not leave an organized list.  The probate court normally requires an inventory of all assets. There are many great resources to help you get organized.  Many of our clients have appreciated this handy checklist to identify important documents that may need to be collected.

Contact their Financial Planner for help. You could also look for their important papers in the home and any statements that arrived in the mail.

Some assets may not have statements that show the current value like the car, house and jewelry. You may want to hire an appraiser to determine the value of the home, and one for valuable personal possessions.

  1. Inventory the bills and liabilities

If your loved one did not leave a comprehensive list, watch the mail for any bills. You can also check their online statements to see if there are regularly paid bills through their banking or credit card accounts.  Keep detailed records of any bills you may have paid on behalf of the deceased, especially for final care and funeral expenses. You will probably be reimbursed for these expenses from the decedent’s estate or trust, and some of these expenses will be deductible for estate tax or income tax purposes.

These documents are also included in the checklist.

  1. Notify third parties, most of whom will require death certificates
    1. Social Security Administration: contact your local office in person.
    2. Life insurance companies: when you find the policy documents, these normally have instructions for filing a claim.
    3. Brokerage, banking, savings and retirement accounts: unless otherwise stated, call the number on the statement.
    4. All three credit bureaus: send copies of the death certificate and a letter requesting that they mark the accounts as deceased.
  1. Cancel items as necessary
    1. Driver’s license: contact your local DMV office.
    2. Credit card accounts in your loved one’s name: call customer service.
    3. Property insurance, such as auto, home, vehicle, etc.: call the agent.
    4. Email accounts: the providers will likely want a death certificate to cancel the account completely.
    5. Social media accounts: you can notify the appropriate company, or in some cases, you can choose to memorialize them instead.
    6. Subscriptions and memberships: contact each provider using the contact information on the statement or website.

The process of settling a loved one’s estate is rarely quick or easy. This article touches on the most time sensitive items but is not a complete list. There are more actions to take in the following months, such as distributing assets to beneficiaries and updating your own estate plan.

Please reach out to us with any questions you have about the process. We are happy to help you find the answers you need at this difficult time.