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.