Nine Things To Do When a Spouse or Parent Passes Away

As we age, we are inevitably confronted with the loss of a loved one. Sometimes we have time to prepare, other times it is sudden. If we are fortunate enough to have some time to prepare mentally and emotionally, the process of coordinating these items can be much more controlled and organized.

If the death is sudden and we are dealing with it unexpectedly, it will be harder as the traumatic and emotional effects of our loved one’s passing are still fresh and we need time to allow ourselves to grieve. Aside from the immediate needs for the funeral arrangements, final medical bills, and notification of family and friends, the rest of these items can be handled over the coming weeks or even months if you are not ready or willing to address them immediately after your loss.

The following 9 items should be addressed as soon as you are able to grieve and get comfortable taking on the challenge.

Item 1 – Get 5-10 extra copies of Certified Death Certificate.

For most survivors, you will need the ability to prove the death of your spouse or parent in order to transfer or change the ownership on assets, close accounts or modify existing benefit programs. Most of the companies and organizations that handle these items will require a certified copy of the death certificate as proof of death. Some may be willing to use a photocopy if you ask. They may be required to visually inspect the certificate before they accept a photo copy, just to ensure that it is an original and is certified.

Unfortunately, there are individuals out there who attempt to collect death benefits by using falsified and illegal death certificates. This has become more common and many institutions will not accept copies because of this. But, especially if you are meeting with the institution in person, bring an original, certified copy and ask if they can make and accept a photocopy.

Each of these original, certified death certificates will cost between $5 and $25 if you get them at the time of the funeral. If you wait until weeks, months or years later, they could cost $50 to $200 depending on where you have to get them from.

Estimate your needs for the bank, brokerage, IRA, 401k, life insurance, annuity and other accounts that you have. Then add about 5 more to that number for various others that may require it. Plus always save at least one original for your future records and your family in case they need it later.

Item 2 – Assemble Your Trust Team.

Your Trust Team. Who is on your Trust Team? For most people, this should start with family members. Parents, children or siblings should always be considered first. As you age, it may even include some grandchildren who you have learned are worthy of your trust. This first component is those individuals that you know you can trust because they share your grief and are always looking out for your best interest.

Many of the decisions that you will need to make over the coming months may involve looking out for your best interest and your financial, emotional and physical well-being. While the ultimate decision is always yours, you need the advice, input, insights and help of your trusted loved ones to help shape the best decisions for your present and future needs.

After you decide on a few trusted family members, you should then add some of the following outside members to your team. I suggest that if you have a financial and estate advisor, bring them in first to review your situation and make suggestions on what can be done first without the need for an attorney. Most good financial and estate advisors will be able to help you handle all the filings and forms needed to make death claims, benefit changes and updates with the need for attorney fees at this point. If you already have an existing relationship with this financial advisor, there may be little to no costs involved with these services.

If you were to bring in an attorney first, many of these basic filings would be charged to your account at rates that could amount to 5 percent of the value of the assets, transfers or distributions. These costs could be saved by using a financial advisor to guide you through them.

You will also want to involve your income tax preparer at some point to make sure that you get everything properly arranged with the IRS before the end of the year that the death occurred. If you don’t, there may be penalties that will be incurred.

Having a lawyer involved is something that you may need to do. But I would read the rest of these items and then make sure you have the checklist of items that you want the attorney to handle. If done correctly, much of the estate will already be administered and distributed before you visit with the attorney.

Item 3 – Contact Employers and Social Security

You will need to contact Social Security to notify them of the death. They will then begin processing the information and stop any monthly payments if there were any. Don’t worry, this is normal. A surviving spouse will receive the higher of the two social security amounts upon the death of one spouse. As an example. If Spouse A was receiving $1,000 monthly and Spouse B was receiving $750 monthly, if spouse A passes away, Spouse B will then receive the higher of the two amounts, $1,000 each month from then on.

Contact all past and present employers of the deceased. Ask if there were any death benefits as part of their employment. Also, ask if there were any death benefits as part of their retirement plan. Ask if there are any modifications needed to any monthly pensions that are being received. Finally, ask if there are any modifications needed for their health insurance if it was being provided through the company. Based on these answers, you will know if there is anything additional to take care of.

Item 4 – File Life Insurance Claims

Many individuals have multiple life insurance policies, possibly from several different companies over the years. If you find the policies or receive any bill or statements in the mail, inquire about the death benefits and options that you have available. Provided that you were the beneficiary, there should only be a few forms to fill out and submit before you can receive your life insurance death proceeds. You may need to file a death claim for each different policy that you have in order to satisfy all policy claims.

Item 5 – Contact Banks, Brokerage and Credit Unions

Your local bank, brokerage, and credit union will need to be notified of the death. If your accounts were owned jointly with your spouse or parent, then you will just need to change the names on the account to remove the deceased individual. If they were only in the name of the deceased, then you will need to handle them differently. Ask the institution what their rules and procedures are as they pertain to these accounts and file the appropriate paperwork to handle the transactions.

Item 6 – Close Unwanted and Unneeded Accounts

It probably makes sense that you should close out any unwanted or unneeded accounts at this time. The only exception is that you may want to keep one joint account open, in case you receive a check payable to the deceased. You may be able to deposit this check into the joint account by signing it over for “Deposit Only”. This could save you an expensive trip to the attorney or surrogate court’s office later.

Item 7 – Revise Wills and Powers of Attorney

It is always a good idea to review your wills, power of attorney, medical directives, health care proxies and any trusts that you may have established on a regular basis at least every 3 to 5 years. It becomes even more important after the death of a spouse or parent. You may need to revise executors, trustees, and other appointees to reflect the current situations.

You will also want to look at your existing beneficiary arrangements and see if they can be simplified, modified and corrected to better represent your current wishes. These can be done with an attorney, or online, or with one of the many legal software programs that are available. The key is to make sure they get revised, executed, and notarized as needed.

Item 8 – Review Real Estate Ownership Arrangements

If the deceased owned any real estate on their own or jointly with others, you will need to take a look at how this will be affected by their death. There are certain rights that joint owners of real estate can have, or not have, depending on the type of ownership. It can also differ from one state to the next depending on whether the owner was a resident or held the property for vacation purposes.

Once you have a clear picture of what type of ownership arrangements exist, you can then begin looking into how it should and will be handled. You may need to consult with a real estate attorney, but I would begin by asking what they charge for a “Real Estate” transaction.

Only after you find this out, mention that this will involve a deceased owner. It may cost a little more as real estate transaction for a deceased owner, but if you mention it as an estate transaction, many attorneys will try to charge a much higher fee, (possibly up to 5% of the value of the house) run it through probate and the estate process. This could cost you thousands instead of hundreds of dollars if you let them. But now you know better.

Item 9 – Protect and Preserve Your Assets From Fraud

Today we have a whole new breed of criminals out there. Many of them prey on widows and senior citizens. They have no conscience and are more than willing to take advantage of anyone that is willing to listen to their story.

Make sure that you have one or more trusted children, siblings or friends review any kind of financial “opportunities”, investments, donations or scams before you decide to part with your money. These con-artists will try to get small amounts at first, then escalate their fraudulent activities to much larger amounts once they feel they have you on the hook.

Don’t let this happen. Always contact one of your Trust Team members before making any big or suspicious decisions.


As we get older, making good decisions can become more difficult. It becomes even more difficult if you just lost a loved one and are in the process of grieving. Don’t let anyone rush you, but listen to your Trusted Team members if they tell you that you need to do something now. Ask them to explain why it needs to be done immediately or if it can wait until you are ready. Some items do require more urgent attention, especially if your loved one passed away closer to the end of a calendar year.

The majority of these items can be handled over a period of time when you are ready to address them. I suggest that you take them one at a time and ask for help from your Trust Team members. Finish one, then move on to another, until you complete them all. If you attempt to do them all at once, you may end up frustrated and unwilling to continue. There is a great saying… “This Too Shall Pass”. Remember that, when you are feeling overwhelmed. This Too Shall Pass!

Eldercare And Estate Disputes – Can Ruin Your Family

While every parent wishes their family would remain civil and friendly after they pass, it is one of the most common problems after a death. Here are some ways to avoid the problems, or settle them if they should arise. Use these four methods to help keep your loved ones working together, especially during the emotional and traumatic times that usually surround the death of a loved one.

Method 1: Fairness and Equality: If possible, try to treat all your loved ones fairly and in equal shares within your estate plans. The single biggest reason loved ones have hard feelings after the death of a parent is that they feel slighted in some way. It could be financially related, responsibility related or even sentimentally related. If you look at your estate plans from these three standpoints and try to keep everything fair and equal, you will solve most problems before they arise.

Method 2: Communicate Your Wishes Early and Often: At regular intervals as you age, take time to arrange family meetings to discuss your estate and final wishes in a casual atmosphere when there are no pending health or emotional issues to cloud one’s judgment. These are great family bonding times and can be very productive at keeping the peace. The more often your loved ones have an opportunity to share their viewpoint, the easier the process of expressing their opinions will become.

Method 3: Written Personal Instructions to Family: Also take the time to put your thoughts and wishes in writing. In addition to your Will, Power of Attorney and Health Care directives, let them know your specific wishes for disposition of family jewelry, artwork, heirlooms, collectibles, or any other items that you think might be an issue. By having these written down, along with your wishes for burial, funeral services, and any other issues that are important to you, they won’t have to make too many decisions on their own. The emotional strain of a death can make tensions run high and tempers flare. Your efforts will eliminate the need for too much decision-making during this trying time.

Method 4: Appoint A Dispute Resolution Person: It is a great idea to appoint a non-family member to act as a mediator in the event that there are any disputes within the family. It should be someone younger than you, but respected by your family. This person should possess a great deal of common sense and also be a good communicator. Hopefully they will not be needed, but having them available can solve little problems, before they become big ones. This person should be disclosed in your written personal instructions to the family.

Summary: As you can see, the best way to create harmony within a diverse family of individuals is to keep the lines of communication open and try to remain open-minded. If your family is geographically disbursed, you can always arrange a meeting around the holidays or other family gatherings. It is usually best to start the process with your own children first and add their spouses (the in-laws) to the mix later if necessary.

If you follow all or even some of these methods, you are guaranteed to provide a much smoother estate transition than if these topics were never discussed until your passing. Have fun with it and try to keep things informative and concise. Preparing a one-page written “family agenda” that summarizes your ideas will keep things moving forward. Always leave a spot at the end for questions and answers. These discussions could help shape your future plans and additional meetings.

Six Ways To Avoid Probate And Avoid Headaches

Many people are worried about probate. What exactly is probate? How can I avoid the headaches, time delays and estate shrinkage that it causes? If you have ever asked any of these questions or heard your parents or friends ask them, here is a simple plan to follow.

What Is Probate? It is the formal process of proving someone’s Last Will and Testament. It entails filing with the county surrogate court office, appointing an executor to administer the terms of the Will and proving that the Will was properly executed if necessary. In some states, there is a mandatory minimum waiting period during which the executor pays final expenses, contacts potential beneficiaries and creditors, then begins organizing the deceased’s assets for distribution and/or liquidation. All these actions can cost your beneficiaries money and this is where the estate shrinkage comes into play.

How Can I Avoid Probate? The easiest way to bypass the probate process is to take steps in advance that will contractually establish a distribution plan upon death of the owner. This can take on many forms, but if an asset is left to be distributed by the Will, it will be exposed to probate. (Note: If a deceased person’s estate is required to file an inheritance or estate tax return, some, or all, of the assets below may be included in that filing.)

Six Ways To Avoid Probate:

1. Joint Accounts With Rights Of Survivorship: Owning your accounts with someone else as a joint tenant is the first and easiest way to potentially bypass the probate process. If one tenant passes away, the other is automatically the new and sole owner of the asset. No administration is needed to pass this account on, but a problem will arise if both joint owners pass away simultaneously. Number 2 can take care of this situation.

2. Designated Beneficiary Plans: The next way to avoid probate is to use a Designated Beneficiary plan on any brokerage or bank accounts that you have. If they are already joint accounts, that is even better as the joint tenancy will take precedence over the beneficiary designation, but both will bypass probate.

3. Payable On Death Plans: If a designated beneficiary plan is not available, a payable on death plan may be offered as an alternative. It is basically the same type of instrument, but some credit unions, banks, and other financial institutions prefer this option. If you have an account in question, ask about both.

4. IRA And Retirement Plans With Beneficiaries: Most retirement plans allow for a specific, primary and contingent beneficiaries to be designated. These designations are a legal and contractual way to bypass probate and administer your wishes. Just make sure that your beneficiaries are specific individuals or charitable organizations and that you specify exactly the percentage that you want them to receive. If you have more beneficiaries than the lines or spaces provided on the form, you can use a second form or attach a typed statement including all the relevant names, address, birthday and social security numbers. If you do this, write “See Attached Statement” in the beneficiary box.

5. Life Insurance Proceeds: The proceeds of a life insurance policy can avoid probate if the beneficiary designation is listed as a person, multiple persons or other legal entity. These proceeds will bypass probate if done properly and are usually income tax-free to the beneficiary.

6. Annuity Proceeds: An annuity contract can also bypass if the beneficiary designation is filled out correctly. Annuities are a contract from a life insurance or annuity company that will bypass probate, but some, or all, of the proceeds may be taxable to the beneficiary depending on how they were established.

Summary: Please note that having a detailed structure on each of the above beneficiary designations is vital to avoiding probate. If you designate a primary or a contingent beneficiary with the following – “As Per Estate”, you will force that asset back through your Will and into the probate system. Always place specific names, addresses and percentages (or amounts) on each designation. If you need more room, prepare a notarized attachment to the form that spells it out in detail.

The first step to creating wealth is knowing where you are and then charting a path that will enhance your financial strengths and correct your weaknesses. The next step is making sure that you keep as much of it as possible to distribute to your loved ones. Both are equally important. Take the time to review your plans now and save a lot of headaches and stress later.