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Financial Checklist for Surviving Beneficiaries

Losing a loved one is one of the most traumatic life events most of us will ever face. Dealing with the death of someone close is never easy, and grief can bring on a variety of emotions that you might not be prepared for. Before you have time to fully process those emotions, you’ll face a long list of decisions to make for your future.  Many of the decisions you need to make are financial and require clear thinking in a time filled with stress, which is never an easy task. Some decisions can wait until you’ve had time to process your loss. But others are time sensitive. 

Contact a funeral home to make arrangements for funeral preparations and payment.   Verify if your loved one had prepaid or made any early arrangements.  Ask the funeral director to help you get 10 certified copies of the death certificate. You will need a Death Certificate for social security and for every asset owned. There is usually a small charge for this.  If you need additional copies later, you can contact the County Clerk’s office to get them.  Ask the funeral home to send you a draft so that you can verify the data prior to them submitting the info to the County.  If the County needs to make a correction, they generate an amendment to be attached to the original as a second page.  It’s easier to have a 1 page Death Certificate, so please take the time to verify the info before it is finalized by the funeral home.

Arrange for someone to be at your house (or at least nearby to watch your house) during the funeral, since burglars read obituaries and funeral notices to target empty homes. 

Once you have all your financial documents together, you can begin to tackle the financial checklist and make some decisions.

  • Talk to your estate planning attorney – your estate planning attorney is the go-to person who will help you navigate your will or trust documents to make any necessary legal decisions upon your loved one’s passing. If you used an app or created your own will, ask friends and family members for a referral to an estate planning attorney so they can review your documents.  An attorney can begin a review of your loved one’s will, or if there is no will, to discuss how the probate process will work. The attorney should also be able to help you understand whether or not your loved one’s estate will cover any existing debts that were just in your loved one’s name, or if not, what your liability will be for those debts going forward. The attorney will file the will with the probate court to have it approved.
  • Contact your loved one’s Human Resource department – notify HR about your loved one’s passing and find out about any benefits or liabilities that might affect you. Is there an employer-provided life insurance policy from which you can expect a payout? Was your loved one owed a bonus, commissions or unused vacation pay? Did your loved one have a 401k balance? If your loved one had a 401k loan or an FSA account that permitted spending in advance of payroll deductions, what is the process for satisfying those financial obligations? If you were on your loved one’s health insurance policy, how will benefits proceed?
  • Life insurance – if your loved one had a life insurance policy outside of work, contact the insurance company and set the process in motion for receiving death benefits. They will need a copy of the death certificate to begin the process. The insurance company can also refund a prorated portion of the premium if it was paid shortly prior to passing. In most cases, life insurance proceeds are tax-free, but you’ll want to confirm those details with the insurance company.  Some insurance companies will also refund the last premium paid if the loved one was on disability prior to passing.  They will provide an extra form and request verification from your loved one’s doctor. Also, think about what you would like to do with the proceeds – pay bills, set aside money for your children’s education, invest, and so on.  
  • Focus on your bills – Make sure you have a plan in place for all your bills. If you were not the one responsible for bills, research which were on automatic payment and which need to be paid manually. Have all the bills put in your name. For the first few months, it can help to draw up or print out a bills checklist to put on the refrigerator or other prominent place. If you are not able to pay all the bills immediately, contact your creditors about the possibility of delaying payments due to the circumstances.  Keep in mind that the bills will be routine monthly utilities, credit card and mortgage/rent as well as annual/quarterly invoices for property insurance, vehicle insurance, DMV vehicle registrations, etc. If your loved one had any credit cards, loans or other bills solely in his or her name, provide those creditors with a death certificate. You may or may not be responsible for paying these debts, depending on the type of each debt and where you live.  If any bills for recurring services arrive in your loved one’s name, contact the sender to update the account with your name and contact info to enable continuation of services.  Some vendors require closing the old account and creating a new account, but some may simply update the account with your name.
  • Contact all credit unions or banks  – notify banks your loved one had accounts with to change the account holder information and notify credit unions so that they help you prevent identity theft.  Contact any creditors to remove your loved one’s name from any joint accounts and to close any accounts that were in your loved one’s name only. Destroy any cards that were issued in your loved one’s name. If you have long-term joint accounts that have remained in good standing, it is a good idea to keep them open since they can help you maintain a positive credit history. Let creditors know if the debts will be paid by your loved one’s estate, or if not, how they will be handled (your lawyer can help you with preparing this information.) If you had been paying for credit card insurance, ask the creditor how that will assist you.
  • Contact investment account administrators  – Contact any financial advisors or administrators of investment or retirement accounts your loved one had to begin the process of assigning assets to beneficiaries. Confer with a financial advisor before cashing out any investments.

Contact other insurance providers  – Contact providers of all other insurance policies – auto, homeowner’s, credit card, health, dental/vision, accident, etc. – to let them know of the passing and to close or change the name on the policy.

Now that you’ve taken care of the most time-sensitive financial to-do’s, it’s time to focus on next steps. These tasks generally come up within three to four months of your loved one’s passing. Work at your own pace but don’t put them off indefinitely.

  • Update beneficiaries – it’s time to look at all your financial documents including life insurance, bank accounts, investment accounts and your will to update the beneficiary designations. If you’ve named a trust as the primary beneficiary, have a chat with your estate planning attorney to make sure that your trust is still intact and that it can serve as your primary beneficiary.
  • Close joint accounts – make a list of any joint accounts that you shared with your loved one. It’s time to close them and replace them with accounts in your name only. You can also close out any accounts that were solely in your loved one’s name. You’ll need to provide each institution with a copy of the death certificate.
  • Update mortgage – contact your bank to inform them of your loved one’s passing to update the loan information.  Check to see if your loan had an insurance requirement at the beginning of the loan. Some banks will charge an upfront fee or incorporate the cost into your monthly mortgage payments for mortgage life insurance.  If your mortgage had this feature, the bank will be paid off by the insurance company and will relieve the surviving loved one/heirs from the burden of mortgage payments.
  • Home appraisal – contact a Probate Referee to have a property appraisal performed on your home (or any other property owned by your loved one or held jointly).  They will assess the value of the property as of the date of the loved one’s death.  This will provide a step-up in cost basis which will be a tax benefit to you upon property sale.
  • Schedule a meeting with your accountant – losing a partner can mean changes to your future tax bill. Meet with an accountant to stay on top of taxes you may owe in the current tax year and to discuss any withholding changes for the future. Tip – you are still considered married by the IRS in the year your loved one passed away. You are allowed to file as a “Qualifying Widower” for 2 years after the loved one passes, for a slight tax benefit.  If you don’t have an accountant that you currently work with, ask friends or family for a referral to someone they trust.
  • Create a new budget – the adjustment to a new financial way of life will probably come with plenty of challenges. Now is the time to set up a new budget to reflect your current income and expenses. You can use an Excel template or a mobile app. A simple excel spreadsheet that displays months as columns and vendors on rows will help you visualize your current actual monthly expenditures and plan accordingly. Tracking your expenses might help you avoid adding additional financial stress during this time of loss.
  • Credit Bureaus – Send a letter to each of the three major credit bureaus to get copies of your loved one’s credit reports to ensure you are aware of all existing debts. Mail separate letters to: Equifax , Experian, TransUnion.  In your letter, include:  
    • Date 
    • Your name 
    • Your address 
    • Your relation to the deceased 
    • Your signature 
    • Deceased’s date of death 
    • Deceased’s date of birth 
    • Deceased’s place of birth 
    • Deceased’s Social Security number 
    • Deceased’s addresses for the past five years 
    • A request that the deceased’s credit report be mailed to you 
    • A request that the following notation be listed on the credit report: “Deceased – Do not issue credit.” 
    • •  Copy of marriage certificate 
    • •  Copy of death certificate

 

    • Update Beneficiaries –   If your loved one was listed as beneficiary on your will, insurance policies, bank accounts or retirement plan, change these designations.
    • Update titles – Update the name listing on any deeds or titles, such as your home or your vehicles. Contact your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles for the title changes to vehicles.

 

  • Social Secirity Admininstration – Contact the Social Security Administration to see if you (or your minor children) are eligible to receive benefits. Be sure to let them know you are calling regarding spousal and survivor benefits.

 

  • Veterans – If your loved one was in the military, contact the Veteran’s Administration to learn what benefits you might be due.
  • Business interests – If your loved one had any business ownerships or interests, contact the attorney who handled your loved one’s business affairs to learn what steps need to be taken to handle any transitions. Also, contact any business clients your loved one may have been working with or for.
  • If your loved one belonged to a labor union, contact the union to see if they offer any assistance.
  • If you have a child who is in college, contact the school’s financial aid office since you may qualify for more assistance.
  • Cancel any clubs or memberships for your loved one, such as gyms or professional organizations.

Getting through the loss of a loved one is hard, but you can get through it (and hopefully financially intact). Even if you weren’t the loved one who paid the bills or handled savings, there’s no reason you can’t become that person now. The best thing you can do now is stay organized. Put one foot in front of the other.  As much as possible, take your time when making financial decisions after you lose a loved one. Before you make any decision, reflect on it and talk with your advisors, whether professionals or trusted people in your inner circle. Seek out other resources, too, so that you can gather as much knowledge as you can and move into the next phase of your life with a solid financial action plan. Most of all, take each day as it comes while you adjust to a new way of life.

  • Meet with a financial planner – if you have a financial plan in place, now is a good time to regroup and make alterations to your financial plan to reflect your new financial situation. If you don’t have a financial plan in place, now is an excellent time to create one to help you prepare to meet your financial goals.
  • Check in on retirement contributions – use an online retirement calculator to see where you stand on retirement savings. You might need to increase your contributions or make changes to your current level of retirement savings.
  • Update your will (and other estate documents) – if you haven’t done so already, it’s time to create or update your will. There are apps to help you create a will easily, like Trust & Will.  Beyond your will, you’ll also want to create an Advanced Health Care Directive that can be your voice should you become unable to make medical decisions.
  • Visualize the future – while it may seem hard to visualize what your future looks like without your loved one, this is an important piece of the healing process. Whether you choose to talk to a therapist or friend, or prefer some alone time, now is a good time to create a new vision for your future. Create a vision board or simply write out some new goals for the future.  Try breathing exercises and meditation to clear your mind so that you can look past the grief and visualize the future.  You need to remind yourself that you can and will survive.

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