We as attorneys are often asked about what steps need to be taken following an individual’s death. Whether it’s expected or accidental, the death of a loved one is often surprising. Some actions must be taken immediately, while with others you can take your time and reflect on the best path to follow. The first steps are fairly straight forward. You will want to reach out to family and friends, and make funeral and burial plans. It may be helpful to look for a document that spells out the deceased’s burial or cremation wishes — many people make funeral arrangements in advance, even paying ahead of time. The funeral home can guide you through the paperwork process, such as placing an obituary and ordering death certificates. Hopefully, the deceased prepared a will that names a personal representative, formerly known as an executor, to oversee the disposition of his or her estate; otherwise, the court may have to appoint one. In sorting through their files, also look for any trusts; insurance policies (life, home and auto); bank, credit card, mortgage and loan accounts; safe deposit box key; contact information for lawyer, doctor, accountant or other professional advisors; and passwords to computer and other accounts.
The following is a brief checklist of items that may be of assistance:
- Contact current employers’ human resources departments for information about possible final wages, accrued vacation, pension, 401(k), life insurance or other death benefits.
- The Social Security Administration will need to be notified if the individual was receiving benefit payments. In some cases, the funeral home will make this notification, in others, it is up to the family. Payments should be stopped as soon as possible to avoid repayment in the future. Additionally, there may be benefits available to surviving spouses and qualified children who are under 18 or disabled, including a one-time death benefit of $255.
- Once Social Security is notified, they will contact Medicare to cancel benefits. However, if the deceased was enrolled in a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan (Part D), Medicare Advantage Plan (Part C) or had a Medigap policy, it may be wise to contact them yourself at the phone numbers provided on each membership card to cancel coverage.
- Funeral homes will typically contact the Veteran’s Administration to see if there are any burial benefits, but family members should be sure to ask. Veterans, their immediate family members and certain others may be entitled to burial at a national cemetery.
- The U.S. Post Office should be contacted in order to forward the individual’s mail to a secure address so important correspondence or notices are not lost.
- It may be wise to contact the Registry of Motor Vehicles in order to cancel the individual’s driver’s license or non-driver ID card, which will help prevent identity fraud. If they owned a car, the personal representative can assist with the transfer of title upon their court appointment.
- Banks or credit unions should be notified in due course after discussions with the individual’s professional advisors. All recent statements should be collected and organized. If the individual had a safe deposit box, all information on the box and the key should be located if possible.
- Credit card companies should be notified. This can be accomplished by placing a call to the customer service number on each card or monthly statement for instructions to close the accounts, or convert the account to the surviving spouse’s name only.
- All insurance companies should be notified as well. If you are a named beneficiary on a life insurance policy, you can contact the company to discuss payment options. Otherwise, the personal representative of the estate can make notice to companies upon court appointment. Also, family or the personal representative should review all auto and homeowner’s policies in order to determine if the policies should be kept in place until assets are sold, modified for any reason, or cancelled.
- Steps should be taken to close email and social media accounts, and cancel magazine subscriptions, cable TV, internet service and utilities if any apply.