Updated: August 21, 2023
Now that you have said goodbye to your loved one, it is time to acknowledge those who have helped and begin to settle your loved one’s affairs. As with previous tasks, it all starts with the paperwork. For example, while arranging permanent custody for dependents and a home for any pets are priorities you may need to refer to the will to know who that will be.
Finances may be a priority and you will want to begin tasks that will ultimately provide income, such as settling your loved one’s estate, notifying life insurance companies, and looking into employee benefits from your loved one’s job. Likewise, if you haven’t already, you may need to contact the Social Security office to stop benefits for your loved one that you would have to pay back.
Other than that, there is no specific order to these tasks.
You should know where they are stored ahead of time, but common places include home safes or strong boxes, safe deposit boxes in a bank, stored digitally on a computer or the cloud, file cabinets, or even a cardboard box. You may need to find the necessary keys to access the information, such as:
In order to make and pay for funeral, burial, and/or cremation plans, you will have likely looked at the last will and testament, advance directives, and other documents. However, now you will be looking for all the paperwork that will be needed to settle the estate. The list is long, but your loved one may not have all of them.
Locate documents for payable on death accounts and transfer on death deeds, which are already owned by the beneficiaries and any trust documents in preparation for transferring them to the beneficiaries.
Locate other financial documents, including bank statements, bearer bonds, brokerage statements, deeds, prenuptial agreement, stock certificates, and title documents, assets such as life insurance policies, bank accounts, investment accounts, real estate ownership, retirement accounts, and business ownership, and debts such as mortgages, owed taxes, credit card debt, and unpaid bills.
At this point you will be getting ready to start the probate process and be looking at the instructions in your loved one’s will for distributing their estate.
You or the executor will be seeking any and all documents needed to identify any assets you can use to cover current costs and to calculate the value of your loved one’s estate.
Insurance policies may become an important source of income and should be located and assessed. You will need access to the premium payment records to do this.
The usefulness of the policy will be one of two situations.
There may be other policies that are no longer needed and can be discontinued. These are policies like health, disability, or pension insurance.
A list of all their financial accounts will be needed to help determine the value of the estate and see if there are other assets that can be used for expenses, although most that are not joint accounts may be tied up until the estate is settled. Information should include the most recent statements and the list of beneficiaries.
You will need any deeds, titles, promissory notes, etc. to help determine the value of the estate and transfer them to the beneficiaries.
There may be a whole host of other financial records to find and factor into the estate value. This will include other personal and business assets as well as unpaid bills and other debts.
Many other legal documents may be needed for identification, validation, or authorization when settling their estate, including:
Executors and legal professional will need access to personal information to settle the estate, including names and contact information of closest family and friends with a stake in the estate and all lawyers, accountants, doctors, etc.
For listings of individual documents to look for see After a Death Occurs: A Checklist at Legal Voice website.
Once all the previous tasks have been completed, it is time to begin settling the remaining estate. Your loved one’s private assets will be tied up until this is done, and you will need these assets to move on with your and your family’s lives.
The first step will be to contact everyone that will be involved which may include your attorney and/or accountant, and the executor and/or trustee of your loved one’s estate. The executor of the will or trustee of any trusts are the only one(s) authorized to carry out these steps. If there is no will, the probate court will appoint an administrator, which may be you.
Most of these steps require a copy of your loved one’s death certificate. This can give you an idea of how many you may need just for this process.
Keep records of everything and notify the executor of the estate about the accounts you close, outstanding debts, and withdrawals of cash from any accounts.
Trusts are handled without involvement of the probate court and can be attended to by your attorney and the trustee working together. You can start the process as soon as you are ready.
You or the executor named in the will and the attorney should file a petition for probate with the probate court along with a copy of your loved one’s will. While you can file the petition as soon as you are ready, the approval takes time. States have a waiting period before the probate process can begin, usually one month. Despite this, you should meet with a probate attorney as soon as possible.
If there isn’t a will, the probate court judge will name an administrator in place of an executor.
The probate process starts with an inventory of all their personal/unshared assets such as property, bank accounts, house, car, brokerage account, personal property, furniture, jewelry, and animals, all of which will need to be filed in the probate court. Trusts, shared, jointly-owned, and transfer-on-death assets are not included.
Before discussing who to contact about your loved one’s finances and paying bills, it’s important to understand what happens to their debt after they die. There are some important points to keep in mind.
The money for creditors will usually come from the estate. As discussed in the Estate Planning section, availability to creditors differs between states and those assets considered part of the estate and those that are not. Non-estate assets and irrevocable trusts are protected from creditors, while estate assets and Community property, in the 10 states that have this, are not.
Non Estate Assets
Every asset in your loved one’s will
Any assets where you co-signed the loan or mortgage as the spouse
Most assets that are transferred directly to beneficiaries upon your loved one’s death
Any assets that are strictly yours
IRAs, 401(k)s or other employer sponsored retirement accounts, life insurance, pension plans, and brokerage accounts
Debtors are first in line to get any money owed to them from available assets and beneficiaries will only be entitled to the remainder. If the debt exceeds the value of the estate, heirs/beneficiaries are not responsible to pay the remainder and the creditors will take a loss. In some cases, medical bills may be an exception.
Student loans will usually be forgiven. Some creditors may be sympathetic about your loved ones death and not seek repayment of the debt.
In addition to checking/savings accounts with a bank, your loved one may have long-term debts such as home mortgages, bank line of credit, leases, car loans, and student loans from banks and/or mortgage companies.
If authorized as the designated agent (usually the executor), ask about any debts, loans, or other money owed to the institution and arrange to have them paid. If you receive any property with a debt such as a home mortgage or a car loan, the debt comes with the property.
Change ownership of joint bank accounts, even if you have the right of survivorship. You must take copies of the death certificate to each bank to change ownership of the accounts or ask questions about a deceased loved one.
If you were not a joint owner or co-signer, a personal representative approved by the court will need to authorize you to access the accounts to pay any bills.
You may need a court order to open and inventory a safe deposit box if a key or password isn’t readily available. Most probate courts have administrative rules about steps to access the box of any decedent.
If your loved one was working, contact their employer for information about pension plans, retirement annuities, credit union, accumulated vacation or earned time, health savings accounts, and other benefits, and/or company insurance policies.
The purpose of contacting credit card companies is to ask about your loved one’s debt, to cancel their cards, and change any jointly held cards to individual accounts. As long as your loved one’s cards are active automatic renewals will continue and the account is vulnerable to identity fraud and theft.
After you have contacted the banks and credit card companies you may have a good idea how much debt your loved one had, but there are many other possible debts.
Look for and notify other lenders that any accounts held in your spouse’s name alone should be closed, and/or if you have joint accounts that your spouse is now deceased. Lenders will report your spouse as deceased when they send their next account update to the credit bureaus.
You should notify federal, state and local officials, landlords, rental agencies, utility companies, and administration offices for assisted living or nursing homes as soon as possible. You may need to discuss debts, rental payments, lease/rental agreements, ongoing expenses for services, and outstanding taxes.
Your loved one may have had many types of insurance that will help you financially once they are settled. They may be life insurance or annuities that will pay a benefit to you as the beneficiary or mortgages, credit cards, or other loan insurance that may pay for the debts directly.
There will likely be many insurance policies that your loved one no longer needs.
In locating all of your loved one’s assets, you may have to find and speak with any financial professionals they have used to identify any additional financial and investment accounts that they may have held. Unless it is you, the executor may not need to be involved if there are no complications. They will go over these accounts with you and can help you manage them.
They say the only certain things in life are death and taxes. This includes taxes after death. You and/or the executor must file a final tax return for the year your loved one dies.
Probably the last part of the estate that will be dealt with is your loved one’s possessions. It can be a very emotionally taxing task. Everything you see can evoke a memory, some of which may be painful. Some may cause guilt when you discard them, even if the item will not be useful to anyone.
It can be time consuming and will most likely take multiple sessions to complete. It may be better to do the task with another family member to reduce your workload, support you, and help you make decisions about items.
Like everything else in this section, it is better if you planned ahead. Not only will you know what items need to be taken into account, you may know where your loved one wants them to go and get a head start on distributing them.
There are many options for each item depending on whether your loved one wanted to hand it down to a specific person, how valuable the item may be, each item’s meaning to the family or friends, or the situation you find yourself in after their death.
—Although a daunting task, there are ways to approach it in a less chaotic manner.
Other items may have aesthetic value, like a painting or jewelry, or be valuable for other reasons, such as antique furniture or a coin collection. Many antiques and art items may not have a lot of intrinsic value. Sometimes a professional appraiser can help.
Consider giving items to an organization that will find someone who could use the item if you or your family can’t. Whether you want to sell or donate items is usually based on preference or need.
There are many other tasks you will need to do. Some will involve checking and applying for any death or survivor benefits to help you out financially, closing out your loved one’s affairs, notifying agencies about their death, and even checking for any evidence of identity theft.
The executor of their will may be the only one authorized to carry out some of these steps. A copy of your loved one’s death certificate will be needed for many of them. Those tasks that require a death certificate are identified to give you an idea of how many copies you may need.
If your loved one has frequent-flier or frequent-buyer programs with points, contact the company and ask if they can be transferred to you or another beneficiary or family member.
If your loved one received Medicare, Social Security will inform the program of the death. If they had been enrolled in Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage (Part D), Medicare Advantage plan or had a Medigap policy, contact these plans at the phone numbers provided on the plan membership card(s) to cancel the insurance. For other types of health insurance contact either their employer or contact the plan at the phone numbers provided on the plan membership card.
Contact healthcare providers to cancel any medical, therapy, or dental visits that are scheduled or happen on a regular basis. This includes pharmacies or other sources of prescription drugs, visiting nurses, home health aides and social workers, and providers of durable health equipment.
Stop any home care services that your loved one may have been receiving, such as meal delivery, home care by a visiting nurse, physical therapist, social worker, or aid and other services.
If the residence will no longer be lived in, make sure that all of the utilities are shut off. This will require some additional steps if this happens during the winter to prevent damage from frozen pipes.
If you are keeping a shared phone service, consider removing your loved one’s voice from outgoing messaging or answering machines.
Once you have canceled their credit cards, it is good to keep track for a time to be sure online predators have not gotten a hold of the information and purchased anything with it.
It’s a good idea to check your loved one’s credit history a month or two after their death to confirm that no new accounts have been opened in their name.
Once their license is canceled, the information is no longer available to use for identity theft.
Not only are periodicals no longer needed, their accumulation in the driveway is a sign that your loved one’s residence is unoccupied.
See The Digital World section for details on accessing and stopping online subscriptions.
Look at printed or online messages to see if there are any deliveries coming, such as from Amazon. The same is true for any routine deliveries, such as pet food or prescriptions. Packages accumulating outside the residence can be an announcement that it is unoccupied.
Your loved one’s email and other online accounts contain a wealth of information about many important things, such as bills, accounts, subscriptions, memberships, and personal correspondence. Keep them open for a while, until you are sure you have all the relevant information.
See The Digital World section for details on managing and closing online accounts.
Reach out to professional organizations your loved one belonged to inform them and find out how to change their membership status. Consider sending notifications to other organizations your loved one is associated with, such as universities, societies, fraternities or sororities, etc. to inform them and to stop any notifications and journals they are sending.
Greek fraternal organizations may want to hold a special ceremony for your loved one, while other organizations may have an alumni publication that could inform classmates and other alumni of their death.
According to a 2012 Pew Center report, almost 2 million people on voter registration rolls are dead. Removing your loved one from the voter registry helps reduce the risk of voter fraud in your area.
Your deceased loved one may be part of your will and their death could affect it. If you do not make the necessary changes, your will may become invalid and be subject to the laws of intestate succession. Avoid this by updating your will to fit your current situation.