Making sensible financial planning decisions after the loss of a family member or personal friend can be quite a challenge.

If designated to execute your departed one’s estate and financial affairs, you should compile a list of issues that need to be addressed in the upcoming weeks and months. Then, prioritize those actions that you must take immediately to help minimize any possible hardships. By focusing your efforts, you will lay a solid foundation for the remaining financial decisions.

In addition to receiving help from trusted advisers (i.e. seasoned CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professionals and trust and estate attorney), utilize the following checklist to guide you on handling matters upon the death of a family member.

Locate estate planning documents, arrange the funeral, and obtain copies of the death certificate.

  • Collect and peruse your loved one’s financial and estate planning documents, such as a will, letters of intent, and trust agreements and amendments. Ascertain with your loved one’s estate planning attorney and qualified financial professionals that you have all photocopies of these forms pivotal to carrying out his or her written instructions. Should a bank safe-deposit box be in your deceased family member’s name alone and no one is authorized to access the vault, you may be able to file a petition for special administrator of the estate with the probate court to open the box. Check the compatibility of this practice with state law before proceeding.
  • From the time of your loved one’s death, you make sensitive decisions that can mean as much to your family as how you manage the estate. To honor the wishes of your loved one, you should consult with family members to plan the funeral or memorial service. Coordinate cultural rituals and make any requested anatomical gifts. Note that you may be eligible for discount airline bereavement tickets, if your family member’s death occurred far away.
  • Retrieve a copy of a death certificate from the family physician or medical examiner within 24 hours of the death, if possible. Recognize that you should provide certified photocopies to anyone who may need them when settling the estate and applying for retirement, Social Security and death benefits. Be sure that the funeral director files the death certificate with the state.
  • Gather online passwords and maintain a list of those who need to be notified.

Notify financial institutions and set up a filing system.

  • As soon as possible, contact your loved one’s CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional, accountant, and legal professional for any valuable information that can save you time in assembling an estate asset inventory and in searching for copies of tax returns. In addition, notify each of the investment firms and retirement plans in which your close family member had an account of your loved one’s death at your earliest convenience. 
  • Place safeguards to protect any personal property and assert control of your bill paying if you were not doing that task previously (i.e. mortgage and insurance). As executor, you can also sign and file a change of address form with the United States Postal Service, indicating where your loved one’s pertinent bills or mail should be sent should no surviving spouse live at the decedent’s residence.
  • Report your family member’s death to the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213. If your loved one was receiving Social Security benefits by direct deposit, request that the bank return any funds or checks it receives for the month of death and beyond to Social Security. 
  • Create an organized file system (legal length files or electronically) for the estate with centralized file folders for each topic or matter. However you choose to set up your records, keep a separate file of any claims against the estate, your family member’s debt, and an ongoing record of your payment of debts. Once you can track all relevant statements and paperwork, check named beneficiaries and post-death distribution options for any Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA) or life insurance policies.

Attend to financial affairs.

  • Providing that you are appointed as executor, you should transfer ownership to your name or beneficiary only for all property and financial relationships you have held jointly with your loved one (i.e. joint tenants with right of survivorship, tenants by the entireties, and payables on death accounts). Be cognizant of impending business transactions and important management issues if your deceased family member owned an interest in a business. Seek the direction and information of the company attorney, any partners, and key employees, when handling business matters.
  • Correspond with the deceased’s employer within 30 days of death to determine what health, dental, and vision insurance benefits qualify for you and your children for temporary continuation under COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986). 
  • If you are the surviving spouse or child of an active-duty member or retiree, you should also contact the Department of Veteran Affairs at 800-827-1000 to verify eligibility for certain veteran and military survivor benefits.
  • Consult state law and file the last will with the appropriate probate court within a certain period of time (i.e. 30 days) after your loved one’s death. If real estate was owned out-of-state, be certain that you also file ancillary probate in that state. In the event there is no will, you should call the probate court or attorney for direction and help.

Settle the estate and develop your financial life plan.

  • In marshalling the assets, you typically have nine months from the date of your loved one’s death to file a federal estate tax return (Form 706). If Form 706 is required, you should hire an estate appraiser to value real estate that is difficult to assess. Orient yourself with state law to see if you need to file state estate tax and inheritance tax returns. Note that federal and state income tax returns are also due for the year of death on the normal filing date, unless an extension is requested.
  • As the estate’s executor, be wary that it is your responsibility to inform beneficiaries that they have the option to effectively disclaim an interest in property. Subsequent to the distribution of respective assets to the indicated heirs, gather receipts listing each item received and assets to the accounts. 
  • Revise your own estate plan, retirement accounts, and insurance policies if the deceased was a named beneficiary. With the collective help of a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional, implement your own budgeting and investment plan customized to meet long-term financial goals and fulfill life aspirations.

Remember not to let emotions influence your financial decision-making and estate stewardship. Also, share this process with your loved ones, as the most difficult part of this event is coping with the emotional and financial aspects of the loss. The best gift you can ultimately give is one that encourages you to leave your legacy plan in place and share it with your close relationships.

FPA member Elaine King, CFP®, CDFA™, is Chairman of FPA of Miami-Dade and Author of Family & Money Matters, La Familia y El Dinero Hecho Facil. FPA member Philip Herzberg, CFP®, AEP®, MSF, is President-Elect of FPA of Miami-Dade and Director of Media Relations & Public Awareness for FPA of Florida/Miami-Dade.


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