FIND THE WILL AND THE EXECUTOR
Your loved one’s survivors need to know where any money, property or belongings should go. Ideally, you talked with your relative before they died and they told you where they kept the will. If not, look for the document in a desk, a safe-deposit box (if you do not have a key or are not the co-owner, you will need a death certificate and proof that you are executor to access it) or wherever they kept important papers. People usually name an executor (the person who will manage the settling of the estate, also called the “personal agent”) in their will. The executor needs to be involved in most of the steps going forward. If there isn’t a will, the probate court judge will name an administrator in place of an executor.
MEET WITH A TRUSTS AND ESTATES ATTORNEY
While you don’t need an attorney to settle an estate, having one makes things easier. If the estate is worth more than $50,000, Harbison suggests that you hire a lawyer to help navigate the process and distribute assets. “Estates can get complicated, fast,” he says. The executor should pick the attorney.
CONTACT A CPA
If your loved one had an accountant, contact them; if not, hire one. The estate may have to file a tax return, and a final tax return will have to be filed on the deceased’s behalf. “Getting the taxes right is an important part of this,” Harbison says.
TAKE THE WILL TO PROBATE
Probate is the legal process of executing a will. You’ll need to do this at a county or city probate court office. Probate court makes sure that the person’s debts and liabilities are paid and that the remaining assets are transferred to the beneficiaries.
MAKE AN INVENTORY OF ALL ASSETS
Laws vary by state, but the probate process usually starts with an inventory of all assets (bank accounts, house, car, brokerage account, personal property, furniture, jewelry, etc.), which will need to be filed in the court. For the physical items in the household, Harbison suggests hiring an appraiser.
TRACK DOWN ADDITIONAL ASSETS
Part of the work of making that inventory of assets is finding them all. The task, called marshaling the assets, can be a big job. “For complex estates, this can take years,” Harbison says. There are search firms that will help you track down assets in exchange for a cut. Harbison recommends a DIY approach: Comb your family member’s tax returns, mail, email, brokerage and bank accounts, deeds and titles to find assets. Don’t leave any safe-deposit box or filing cabinet unopened.
MAKE A LIST OF BILLS
Share the list with the executor so that important expenses like the mortgage, taxes and utilities are taken care of while the estate is being settled.
CANCEL NO-LONGER-NEEDED DIGITAL SERVICES
These include cellphone, streaming services, cable and internet. Remember to cancel ongoing home deliveries and services.
DECIDE WHAT TO DO WITH THE PASSPORT
You have a couple of options for how to deal with your loved one’s passport. You do not have to return it; you can keep it as a memento, with the stamps on its pages reminding you of past adventures. If you’re worried about the possibility of identity theft, mail the passport to the federal government along with a copy of the death certificate and have it officially canceled. If you want the canceled passport returned, include a letter requesting that be done. You can also request the government destroy the passport after it’s been canceled.
NOTIFY THE FOLLOWING OF YOUR LOVED ONE’S DEATH:
- The Social Security Administration (SSA): If the deceased was receiving Social Security benefits, you need to stop the checks. Some family members may be eligible for death benefits from Social Security. Generally, funeral directors report deaths to the Social Security Administration, but ultimately, it’s the survivors’ responsibility to ensure the SSA is informed. Call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213 to report the death, or visit your local SSA office. The SSA will let Medicare know that your loved one died.
- Life insurance companies: You’ll need an original death certificate and policy numbers to make claims on any policies the deceased had.
- Long-term care (LTC) insurance companies: If your loved one had LTC insurance, regardless of whether they were receiving benefits, you’ll need to notify the insurer of the death.
- Banks, financial institutions: If you share a joint account with your deceased loved one, you’ll need to notify the bank that they’ve died. Most bank accounts carry automatic rights of survivorship, which means if your name is on the account, you have full access to the funds when your loved one dies. You become the sole owner on the date of your relative’s death. Most banks will require a death certificate to remove the relative from the account. If the deceased person was the sole owner of a bank account, the bank will release funds to the person named as beneficiary once it learns of the account holder’s death. Many banks let their customers name a beneficiary or set the account as Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) to another person. You’ll need to show the bank a death certificate to get the funds released. If the owner of the account didn’t name a beneficiary or POD, things get more complicated. The executor will be responsible for getting the funds to repay creditors, pay bills and divide funds according to the dead person’s will. You may need to open a special “estate of (the deceased’s name)” account for any income received after death.
- Financial advisers, stockbrokers: Determine the beneficiary listed on accounts. Depending on the type of asset, the beneficiary may get access to the account or benefit simply by filling out appropriate forms and providing a copy of the death certificate (no executor needed). While access to the money is straightforward, there are tax consequences to keep in mind. You will be responsible for paying any taxes earned by the account once your loved one dies. Keep in mind, the tax burden could be significant on a well-funded investment account.
- Credit agencies: To prevent identity theft, send copies of the death certificate to one of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian or TransUnion. You only need to tell one of them, and it will tell the others.
- Frequent-buyer/flier points: If your loved one has frequent-flier or frequent-buyer programs with points, contact the company and see if they can be transferred to a beneficiary or family member.
CANCEL DRIVER’S LICENSE
This removes the deceased’s name from the records of the department of motor vehicles and prevents identity theft. Contact the agency for specific instructions, but you’ll need a copy of the death certificate. Keep a copy of the canceled driver’s license in your records. You may need it to close or access accounts that belonged to the deceased.
CLOSE OR UPDATE CREDIT CARD ACCOUNTS
Contact customer service and tell the representative that you’re closing the account on behalf of a deceased relative who had a sole account. You’ll need a copy of the death certificate to do this, too. Keep records of accounts you close, and inform the executor of any outstanding balances on the cards. Credit bureaus, as part of their regular reporting process, will also send card issuers an alert that your relative has died. But if you want credit accounts notified faster, contact them directly. Be sure to cut up your dead loved one’s credit cards so they aren’t lost or stolen.
If the credit card account is shared with another person who intends to continue using it, keep the account open but notify the issuing bank of the death so the deceased’s name can be removed from the account. Destroy any cards with their name on them to prevent theft and identity fraud.
TERMINATE INSURANCE POLICIES
Contact providers to end coverage for the deceased on home, auto and health insurance policies, and ask that any unused premium be returned.
DELETE OR MEMORIALIZE SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS
You can delete social media accounts, but some survivors choose to turn them into a memorial for their loved one instead. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all allow a deceased person’s profile to remain online, marked as a memorial account. On Facebook, a memorialized profile stays up with the word “Remembering” in front of the deceased’s name. Friends will be able to post on the timeline. Whether you choose to delete or memorialize, you’ll need to contact the companies with copies of the death certificate. TikTok does not offer a memorial option for a deceased user’s account.
CLOSE EMAIL ACCOUNTS
To prevent identity theft and fraud, shut down the deceased’s email account. If the person set up a funeral plan or a will, they may have included log-in information so you can do this yourself. If not, you’ll need copies of the death certificate to cancel an email account. The specifics vary by email provider, but most require a death certificate and verification that you are a relative or the estate executor.
UPDATE VOTER REGISTRATION
Contact your state or county directly to find out how to remove your dead relative from the voting rolls. The rules vary by state. Some states get notifications from state and local agencies and will remove your dead relative from voter registration rolls automatically. States will also remove voters if a relative notifies them of the death. Depending on where your loved one was registered to vote, you may need to give notice of the death in writing, by affidavit or with a death certificate.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 11, 2020. It has been updated with more recent information.