John J. Diak, CFP®
Checklist for What to Do When a Spouse or Parent Dies
One of the most difficult challenges you may face is handling the death of a loved one. When a parent, spouse, or other close family member passes away, they leave behind remnants of their life that require prompt and careful attention—personal, business, legal, and financial matters that need to be closed out or addressed.
From planning the funeral to settling the estate and countless details in between, survivors often find the responsibility overwhelming, especially while simultaneously experiencing grief or emotional turmoil. Knowing exactly what to do during this difficult time can be difficult, but mistakes and oversights can be costly or lead to serious problems down the road.
This checklist will help ensure you know what to do when a death occurs:
What To Do Immediately After Someone Dies
Get an Official Pronouncement of Death: If the person dies in a hospital, nursing facility, or under hospice care, this will be handled automatically by the staff. Otherwise, you may need to call 911 to have medical personnel declare the person dead and be transported to a funeral home. It is important to refer to state laws or confer with an attorney on how and when this should occur.
Make Notifications: Tell close family and friends immediately; do your best to ensure anyone who will be saddened by the death learns before word spreads through casual channels like social media or neighborhood gossip. Ask loved ones to help you spread the news to old friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and any organizations where they were an active member.
Contact Their Employers: Notify their employer as soon as possible, not only as a courtesy but to find out about pay and benefits due to beneficiaries, such as wages, bonuses, life insurance policies, retirement and pension plans, and continuing medical coverage for survivors if applicable. Former employers may also have old 401(k) plans or insurance policies owed to beneficiaries. If the person served in the military, contact the Veteran’s Administration to learn about benefits that may be due. You should also contact the Social Security Administration to determine if benefits are due to you.
Make Funeral or Burial/Cremation Arrangements: If the person left behind instructions or you’ve discussed their wishes, follow the plan. If not, you may need to discuss arrangements with other close family members and determine what you think your loved one would want. You’ll need to make arrangements immediately and begin the process within the first few days.
Publish an Obituary: The purpose of an obituary is to notify the public of a person’s death allowing for those they are no longer in touch with to learn of their passing, create a public and genealogical record honoring their life, and make funeral arrangements clear to everyone. Many people choose to place an obituary in a local paper as well as a hometown publication if they’ve moved away.
Get Certified Copies of the Death Certificate: You will need multiple certified copies of the person’s death certificate to handle official business, such as collecting life insurance, registering the death with government agencies, closing bank and brokerage accounts, and transferring property titles or ownership. Typically the funeral home will be able to get these for you. Request a few more copies than you think you’ll need, as it’s easier to get them up front than to reorder more later.
Secure Property: It’s sad to say, but sometimes when a person passes away, others see it as an opportunity to remove valuables and other items from the home. Take a moment to secure any valuables in a safe place and make sure the doors and windows are locked if no one will be living there, and don’t forget to secure detached storage buildings, too. Installing security cameras to monitor unoccupied property may be a good option as well.
Provide Care for Pets: If your loved one had pets, find a temporary or permanent caretaker for them if you won’t be able to care for them yourself. If necessary, board them at a kennel until a permanent home is found.
Forward Mail and Stop Newspaper Delivery: Go to the post office and fill out a forwarding order to have their mail forwarded to yourself or another appropriate individual. You should also stop newspaper delivery at their home if no one is living there. If mail and newspapers are left to accumulate at the deceased person’s home, it could be a sign to criminals that the home is unoccupied and a good target for theft. You also don’t want to miss bills and other important papers that may be arriving in the coming days and weeks.
What To Do Within Weeks of Someone’s Death
Locate the Will: Ideally, the person will have a will and you’ll know where to find it. You may need to look through their desk, files, personal safe, safety deposit box, or contact their attorney. An executor, also known as a personal representative, should be named in the will and that person will need to be involved going forward. If there is no will, a probate court judge will name an administrator.
Locate Other Important Documents: If the person who passed away was organized, you may not have any trouble finding their important documents. Sometimes, though, it may take you a while to locate everything and you could even need to request duplicate copies. Locate the original copies of titles, property deeds, life insurance policies, and financial statements, and then store them in a safe place that you can access when needed.
Contact Your Probate Office: Speak with your county probate office about what paperwork needs to be filed. In some cases, little action is necessary, but in others, you will need to open a probate estate and will need to provide paperwork outlining your loved one’s assets.
Update Bank and Brokerage Accounts: If you have joint accounts, change titles and put them in your name to separate them from any probate proceedings. Close accounts that were in your loved one’s name. Establish an “estate” bank account in the deceased’s name for policy payments and checks. You should also contact credit card companies to close accounts. Note that you will likely need a copy of the death certificate in order to take care of these things.
Work With an Attorney and CPA: If the estate is worth more than $50,000, things can get complicated quickly. It’s helpful to have professionals to help you navigate the process of distributing assets, settling the estate, and handling taxes. You may need your own attorney or accountant, separate from that of those representing the deceased, to avoid conflicts of interest.
Notify Insurance Companies: Contact life insurance companies and ask them for claim forms and instructions; keep in mind it may take weeks for the funds to be paid. Check medical insurance policies right away to identify deadlines for filing claims for benefits. Terminate any policies that are no longer needed, such as auto or disability.
Check Your Insurance Coverage: If applicable, make sure you are still adequately covered. You may need to find new medical insurance, and you may need to update your property, auto, disability, and other policies if they had your deceased loved one’s name on them.
Track Down Assets: Make a list of all known property and assets to prepare for the estate or probate process. You may need to check the person’s files, safety deposit box, personal safe, mail, bank and brokerage accounts, and tax returns for the information you need.
Handle Bills: Make a list of all bills that must be paid. Work with the executor to ensure payments such as the mortgage, taxes, and utilities are covered. Cancel any recurring bills that are no longer needed, such as memberships, cell phone bills, and subscriptions. You can use previous months’ bank statements to identify recurring charges and bills.
Prevent Identity Theft: Send a letter to all three major credit bureaus and ask for a credit report to be issued that states, “Deceased—do not issue credit.” Contact the Department of Motor Vehicles to cancel their driver’s license. Close personal email accounts.
What To Do Within Months of Someone’s Death
Update Billing Accounts: You may need to transfer utility bills, subscriptions, and other accounts to your name. Go through your records and make sure you have access to everything you’ll need long-term, making adjustments as necessary.
Update Their Digital Footprint: If the deceased person used social media, you can either delete their accounts or in some cases have the accounts memorialized. You’ll need to contact the companies with their death certificate to do so. If they had websites or other email addresses, you may need to close those as well or update the sites and continue paying for hosting.
Work With a Financial Professional: Whether you are inheriting money from a loved one or dealing with the aftermath of losing a spouse or partner, your financial circumstances may have changed. Try to postpone making major financial decisions until you feel ready. A financial advisor can help you update your financial plan, create a revised budget, make tax strategy recommendations, revisit your retirement planning, and provide guidance for important financial decisions.
Take Care of Yourself
As you close out the life of your loved one, remember to take care of yourself—emotionally, physically, legally, and financially. The period following the death of a loved one is a vulnerable time, and it’s important that you get the support you need to handle all affairs and your own needs with care.
John J. Diak, CFP® is the Principal & Client Wealth Manager at Oatley & Diak, LLC in Parker, Colorado. He assists clients through many difficult lifestyle changes such as business downturns, retirement planning, divorce, the death of a spouse, and family estate issues among others. Oatley & Diak, LLC is a family-run registered investment advisory (RIA) firm that provides clients with investment management and financial planning services in a hands-on, intimate environment. Learn more about them at oatleydiak.com.
The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.
This material was prepared by Crystal Marketing Solutions, LLC, and does not necessarily represent the views of the presenting party, nor their affiliates. This information has been derived from sources believed to be accurate and is intended merely for educational purposes, not as advice.