After a death, survivors are required to put their estate in order at their most vulnerable moment. To give you a glimpse of the minimum things that must be done, I provided a list at the end of this column. My circumstances were more difficult because I made the classic mistake of letting my husband take care of all our finances, taxes, and bills.
After a spouse’s death, transferring bills, closing accounts, dealing with institutions, and paying healthcare bills is a daunting, full time job. I quickly used 20 death certificates and had to order 20 more. I spent the first year grappling with summary judgements, medical bills, IRS audits, account seizure, health insurance, computer accounts, and unpaid bills. The systems designed to protect against fraud require survivors to surmount substantial hurdles when they are least equipped to do them.
Jeff and I kept separate credit cards, but while he was suffering, many bills had gone unpaid. One card had credits; but the company demanded that I pay the bill and indicated that they would immediately mail me a check for the credits. And last week, five years later, I received that check.
I promptly deposited that check (of less than $500), triggering my bank’s risk department. The check was made out to my husband’s estate of which I am the sole beneficiary. The bank refused to accept the deposit. Could I call the credit card company, and have the check issued in my name? A call to the credit card’s risk department. No.
My bank’s risk department continued with more requests. Could I send a copy of the will? Done. Could I send a copy of the letter indicating that the will was executed? Done. Death certificate? Done.
It has been five years and still the memory of the brutality of the state, federal government, social security, credit card companies, insurance, and financial institutions is raw. Social security needed our marriage license, my husband’s 35-year-old divorce decree (from his previous marriage) and the divorce settlement agreement (I couldn’t find either) to collect widow’s benefits. My husband’s death triggered an IRS audit that went back five years. I fruitlessly searched through boxes and boxes for receipts. The night before a scheduled back surgery, I received a letter cancelling my health insurance (which had been in my husband’s name). The letter indicated that while I was entitled to the insurance, I would have to reapply in my own name. My state trolled obituaries to close any account related to the decedent. And so it went, over and over again, the institutions designed to protect you, going after you at your most vulnerable time.
And the reasons for these voluminous requests are to prevent fraud. The problem is that they put the onus on the least capable person. A simple alternative would be to allow the survivor to sign an affidavit attesting that they are entitled to the benefit.
Five years later, I finally got through all of it; with one exception. Prudential still refuses to accept the executed will and is requiring the state send an affidavit that there are no other wills. I’ll have work on that one; in the meantime, Prudential gets to keep my money.
Large financial institutions have notorious risk departments that make basic transactions difficult.
Back to the present, today I got another call from my large bank. Their risk department is still refusing to allow this check to be deposited. Could I send a notice from the state saying that I am the only executor? I called the state and was informed that there is no such document, since the will didn’t go through probate.
And so it goes.
Partial List of Survivor Duties (within first year; most within first few months)
- Contact mortuary.
- Plan funeral or memorial service including location, food, flowers, etc.
- Compose and publish obituary.
- Notify friends, family, co-workers of death and upcoming service. Utilize social media to ensure broadest reach.
- Contact the Social Security Administration—must have all marriage and divorce (if spouse had prior divorce) documents.
- Locate most recent will.
- Notify spouse’s employer.
- Notify insurance companies, including life and health.
- Change all property titles.
- Change name on all utility bills.
- Remove spouse from voter rolls.
- Contact the attorney for a reading of the will and to settle the estate.
- Pay end of life medical bills.
- Find out about benefits due to beneficiaries. Check on retirement or pension plans. If used spouse’s medical insurance, apply for continuing coverage.
- Notify own employer, since death of a spouse may be a “life event” that could trigger benefit decisions.
- Check with all former employers about life insurance policies, a pension, an old 401(k), or other benefits.
- Check with the Veterans Administration, if applicable.
- Get claim forms and instructions. It can take weeks to receive funds.
- Remove spouse’s name and update insurance policies, such as auto and homeowners.
- Change titles on all jointly held bank, investment, and credit accounts.
- Close accounts that were in spouse’s name only or change the accountholder information.
- Send a letter to all major credit bureaus and get credit reports to see if there are any debts.
- Add notification in credit report that says “Deceased—do not issue credit.”
- Notify accountant/tax preparer.
- File end of life Federal and State tax return within 9 months or sooner.
- Sort through and donate late spouse’s belongings.
- Get copies of spouse’s death certificate. All financial institutions, credit cards, and utilities require death certificates to close an account or to change ownership.
- Pay bills for credit cards, utilities, car loans, property tax, insurance premiums and the mortgage.
- Notify Medicare and other health insurance companies that you will no longer pay your spouse’s premiums.
- Cancel club memberships and magazine subscriptions.
- Prepare the estate. Identify which assets to donate directly to dependents and which to keep.
- Console family and children.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.
Letters to Editor
Clare kettell says
And so it went for me also. Not as much to attend to but close. How could this information which u so carefully categorized be disseminated to others going through the same situation ? Such helpful info should be distributed to all those who will be going through this.
Angela Rieck says
I agree, I was especially surprised to discover that I needed my late husband’s divorce information. I am hoping that local hospice might have this. In my Internet review, I found a number of articles that give the 10 most important things…but if only it were just 10. But that least know how we can help other survivors by taking some of these tasks for them.
Rev Julie Hart says
Thank you for sharing your experience and your pain. I hope many take your advice seriously. As a Pastor I’ve seen the shock registered on spouses and family, starting with the Funeral Home. Very few are prepared for the average $7-8,000 for funeral expenses. And they want the check immediately. I witnessed this with a family a year ago. In my ministry I had always supported the family with my presence at this stressful meeting with a Funeral Director. We met with the Director on a Friday. He told the family he wanted the check by Monday!
So what you say about stress and unexpectedness is so true… no matter how prepared one thinks they are; they are not. As you point out, that is just in the immediacy of the death. There are days, weeks, and months full of meetings, endless long phone calls, and demands at a time of vulnerability.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!
Rev Julie Hart
Angela Rieck says
Thank you! I know how difficult it is to minister to those who are so overwhelmed. I wish that the institutions would aid the survivor rather than make it so difficult for them. But there are also those who I remember for their kindness. I had called the surgeon that night about my insurance and he said that he didn’t care…his office would work it out and he went ahead with the surgery. Kindness during these times is the greatest gift that any survivor can receive.
Ruth P Weiss says
Thank you Angela, very timely and a needed kick in the pants. One of our dear friends just dropped dead two weeks ago and his widow is overwhelmed as you were.
Angela Rieck says
Sadly, my list probably isn’t complete; but I hope that people gather this information before they need. I never would have known that I needed my late husband’s divorce settlement from his first wife…
Mary Miscavich says
I was widowed in December 2020 for the second time, first time was April 2000. Both times the details are overwhelming and exhausting and both time I was fully involved in our finances. No matter how prepared you think you are there is nothing to prepare you for the reality and the endless paperwork of what is to come, I fully expect to be doing this well into 2022 and I have now more financial and legal people helping me than I ever thought possible. My second husband and I met in a grief support group after losing our spouses in 2000 and thought we were so much more prepared this time around. Not. Even with a revocable Living Trust, wills, POAs, DNRs, etc my life has been misery and there has been no time to grieve, Everyone wants what they want now. I have dealt with some sympathetic contact’s but it does not make the way easier, they require massive amounts of information and there is only one person that can track this stuff down, the survivor. It is impossible to have everything you need )n advance and frustrating and overwhelming to deal with it now, I’m taking it one day at time, working my way through the mountain of stuff to be done and hoping I can come through this with my sanity and health intact.
Angela Rieck says
What courage to marry again after what you went through. I am so sorry that you are going through this again. I wish that these financial companies’ risk groups would show some humanity. A lot of what we have to deal with is that WE have to prove that we are not committing fraud, over and over again. If these companies’ risk groups would allow us to sign an affidavit rather than come up with mountains and mountains of forms an documents to prove the null hypothesis…that we are not stealing. I wish they showed some humanity. I am so sorry that you have to go through it again.
Vera Rieck says
AMEN! An excellent but simplistic explanation to the legalities of life. And the longer we live, the more complicated life becomes. Establishing a good trust does help ease the pain of spousal survival.