When Someone Dies: Advance Preparation – and a Helpful Checklist – Can Make a Challenging Time Less Overwhelming
If you haven’t faced the death of a loved one, whether a spouse, parent, close relative, or close friend, you almost certainly will. Dealing with the passing of someone close to us is an inevitable and painful part of life. But apart from the emotional pain, the death of someone we love can be an overwhelming and confusing experience, particularly if we’re the ones who have to deal with the practical aspects of someone’s passing.
Because we want our AgingOptions Blog readers to be better prepared, our attention was drawn to this article from the Kiplinger website in which the writer, a gentleman named T. Eric Reich, founder of Reich Asset Management in New Jersey, gives us a handy list of things to do – and some things he strongly advises not to do – when someone close to us passes on.
If you’re an adult child facing the loss of a parent, you might ask yourself, “Could I really do all this?” You may be called upon to walk your surviving parent through a legal minefield – a task that calls for professional legal help. Let’s take a look.
The Passing of a Loved One is All-Consuming
Reich begins his Kiplinger article with an appropriately compassionate tone. “The death of a loved one is obviously a difficult event to endure,” he writes. “It can become all-consuming and often at the expense of other day-to-day matters that need to be addressed.” But, he adds, the burden goes far beyond the emotional.
“With the death of a loved one, new matters arise that need to be handled as well,” says Reich. “There are so many phone calls that need to be made and letters that need to be sent. Unfortunately, sometimes we simply get overwhelmed with everything that needs to get handled and we just stop altogether.”
While Reich is empathetic about the way profound grief can grind the whole world to a halt, he also gently but firmly insists in his article that, if you take care of a few important things now, it will make the grieving process just that much less complicated for everyone involved, both in the immediate and the long term.
A Common Thing Surviving Spouses Forget to Do
For starters, Reich zeroes in on one troublesome scenario he sees too often in his line of work. “The mistake many people make is that the surviving spouse often leaves the assets they inherited in their joint names or in their deceased spouse’s name,” he writes. This inaction sows the seed for future complications.
“As time passes, the surviving spouse’s health may begin to decline as well – I’m not sure if it’s the grief, the new ‘routine’ in their life, or simply a broken heart,” Reich explains. “Regardless, many times that spouse only survives a few years after their deceased spouse. When that happens, and the original spouse’s assets were not retitled, it can become an even more difficult process for the heirs.”
For example, when Dad passes away and leaves everything to Mom, and then Mom leaves assets under joint ownership with her late husband before she passes, this makes the landscape extremely complicated for their adult children or other heirs. “The problem is that they will now have a much more complicated task ahead of them than Mom did when she settled Dad’s affairs,” Reich writes. “They will have several more steps to go through – because Mom never retitled some of Dad’s original assets. Mom unknowingly made a difficult job even harder on her heirs by not getting everything transferred over when her husband passed.”
A Checklist of Things to Do After a Loved One Passes
Reich includes a list here of thirteen tasks that are important to remember after a loved one passes. Because this is such an applicable topic to so many people, we have decided to include the whole list verbatim from Reich’s article:
- Contact the funeral home and make arrangements. Don’t forget to consider veterans arrangements if applicable. Ask them to help you get additional copies of the death certificate. You almost always need more copies than you think. On average, six to 10 copies are needed.
- Call your attorney. There are many legal matters that may need to be addressed, and your attorney can tell you which ones apply to you.
- Contact Social Security. Your Social Security benefits may change after a spouse’s passing, so you’ll need to notify them ASAP.
- Review/cancel their health insurance. If your insurance is provided by a former employer, you will need to contact them.
- Contact your spouse’s pension company if applicable. Depending on the pension plan option originally selected by your spouse, you may be eligible to receive benefit payments.
- Notify the life insurance company and file a claim. This is typically a very easy process, so don’t put this one off for later. The sooner you get the funds the better to help you with all of the expenses.
- If your spouse was a veteran, contact the Department of Veterans Affairs. Checking with the VA will help you see if there are any benefits payable to you.
- Notify all your financial institutions. This includes banks (change account names), credit cards (remove spouse or close accounts), mortgage companies, insurance companies and all other important bills (change into your name only).
- Contact your CPA. You will want to discuss all of the issues unique to this tax year. This is a great time to retain a CPA if you’ve been doing it yourself. Now is not the time to go it alone.
- Contact your financial adviser. You will need to change account titles, file beneficiary paperwork for IRAs, 401k(s), etc.
- Retitle any assets. Any assets (real estate, cars, etc.) in your spouse’s name should be retitled to your own name. For cars, you will need to go to your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) with a copy of the death certificate and the title. To transfer real estate, it depends on how the title was held.
- Prepare and probate the estate. In New Jersey, for example, if the estate doesn’t qualify for simplified procedures, then the assets have to go through probate, which is handled by a court. The named executor will need to go to the surrogate’s court to request to be formally appointed. If no one was named in the will or the person named isn’t able/willing to serve, the court will appoint an “administrator.” The executor/administrator then has to handle the estate assets, any debts/taxes and distributing property. Your CPA or attorney can often help with this whole process.
- Update your own estate plan. If your spouse was your beneficiary, then you’ll need to update all of your accounts, insurance policies, estate documents, etc. in order to reflect your new beneficiaries.
Three Things You Should NOT Do After Someone Dies
Similarly, Reich’s list of “don’ts” is just as important as his list of to-dos:
- Don’t make big decisions that you are not required to make. You don’t need to decide to keep or sell the house and move away right now. You need time to adjust to your new situation, and snap decisions could be regrettable ones if they’re made without a “clear head.”
- Don’t make major purchases. This is a time when I often see people spend more money than normal. Sometimes it’s due to a lack of focus on finances and sometimes it is due to wanting to “live for today.” Either way, now is a really important time to focus on your finances, and not let them get away from you.
- Don’t be quick to give away money, or “stuff.” Often, I see clients giving away larger gifts to children after a spouse passes, including their own or the deceased spouse’s possessions. First you need to fully understand your new financial situation before you can adequately assess whether these gifts make sense. Giving away a spouse’s possessions needs to be well thought out. If not, family rifts can occur, because your spouse may have had conversations with children regarding certain possessions that you might not be aware of.
We felt that Reich’s words were very wise. While none of us ever hope for grief to strike, we know that a little bit of preparation can ease some of the burden that we all will experience after a loved one’s passing.
Of course, we at AgingOptions are ready and willing to be of help. Through our partnership with Life Point Law, we provide a full range of estate-related services, including pre-planning to minimize the legal and financial upheaval that a death can trigger. Contact us and let us provide you with services that will ease your sense of loss and enhance your peace of mind.
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(originally reported at www.kiplinger.com)