There are few things in life more trying than the death of someone close to you. But if you are a spouse, executor, or chief beneficiary, settling that loved one’s estate adds a whole extra layer of complication and stress to what is already a very difficult time.
I hope that this 5-Point Checklist for settling a loved one’s estate can help make this process a little easier for the bereaved. And if you’re a person who doesn’t have a detailed estate plan in place, I hope that reading through this list will motivate you to see a financial advisor or attorney to make a plan.
At Keen Wealth Advisors, we like to remind our clients that estate planning is not just for the ultra-wealthy. A proper estate plan also covers what happens if you become incapacitated, beneficiary protection planning, legacy planning – things that everyone needs to think about, no matter what their station in life.
Whether you are the bereaved now trying to handle a loved one’s estate or you are the one planning ahead so that things are easier on your family at your passing, as you’ll see below, there is a lot to do when those times come. Hopefully the following checklist will provide an understandable outline of things to follow through on during these most difficult of times.
1. Gather, scan, and file all important documents.
You’re going to have to keep track of a lot of paperwork for the deceased. Whatever your preferred filing system is for all your other important paperwork, make room for all of the deceased’s documents you’ll be collecting. Digitizing as you go is also a great way to clean up these and all your other financial documents. If you don’t have a scanner, your cell phone will work in a pinch.
Now, as to the documents, you probably already have the Will or Trust. First, go to the city clerk’s office and get as many Certified Copies of the Death Certificate as you can – 10 or 20 minimum. You’re going to be sending this document out to a lot of financial and government institutions, so the more copies you have on hand, the better.
Next, you need Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration, which prove you have the right to settle your loved one’s estate. If you don’t hire an attorney, take the Will or Trust and a Certified Copy of the Death Certificate to the city hall or county courthouse where the deceased was living and file a petition. Again, get as many copies as you can of these Letters.
Finally, you need to find and file all the deceased’s personal and financial documents: family birth certificates, marriage certificates, Social Security numbers, bank statements, credit card statements, investment accounts, insurance policies, and tax returns.
2. Consult an attorney.
An attorney who specializes in wills, trusts, and estates can help alleviate some of the stress and confusion that goes with settling a loved one’s estate. If you don’t hire an attorney, it’s usually a good idea to at least talk to one. In even the most loving families, settling an estate can get messy in a hurry. Take the time to have a pro assess your situation.
3. Notify financial and government institutions.
In order to settle your loved one’s estate, you need to notify the deceased’s employer, banks, creditors, utilities, and insurers, as well as the US Post Office and the Social Security Administration. Each may have different requirements, but you’ll need to have those Certified Copies of the Death Certificate ready to send out.
4. Apply for survivor’s benefits.
Your loved one’s estate probably includes insurance policies and pensions you need to contact. There might be paychecks, unused vacation time, or other benefits to collect from an employer as well. Also, Social Security offers a one-time $255 death benefit, but also be sure to check if you or any other beneficiaries are entitled to monthly survivor’s benefits.
As for bigger disbursements, like a large life insurance policy, it might be a good idea to talk to a financial advisor. At Keen Wealth, we advise our clients to try to minimize surprises in their finances. Inheriting a big lump sum, such as an IRA or 401k, can have huge tax consequences, and things can get even more complicated if that money is going to be divided among several heirs.
5. Settle all accounts or subscriptions.
Smaller expenses like the phone bill and magazine subscriptions will keep adding up quickly, or accruing interest and penalties if they’re not getting paid. Also, these kinds of accounts are vulnerable to hackers and identity thieves if they’re forgotten and not supervised. Make any outstanding payments, close out accounts that are no longer needed – including social media – and arrange transfer of ownership for any subscriptions you want to keep. Scan and file a copy of closed bills for your records, shred everything else.
Yes, settling a loved one’s estate can be a daunting job. Now imagine how much harder all this can be without proper planning.
I meet too many people who think they don’t need an estate plan because they don’t have a lot of assets, or they just trust that their “good kid” will split things up fairly. But, as we tell our clients at Keen Wealth, when you’re talking about financial decisions and thinking about your future, we have to make sure that we’re looking at all the angles. What seems obvious, might not be to grieving friends and family. Estate planning is just one part of the ongoing, checklist-driven process we use at Keen Wealth to make the best possible financial plans for our clients, and hopefully, ensure that their legacies will be happy and lasting.
Bill Keen is a CHARTERED RETIREMENT PLANNING COUNSELOR℠ and independent financial advisor with more than 25 years of industry experience. As the founder and CEO of Keen Wealth Advisors, a registered investment advisory firm, he specializes in providing personalized retirement planning designed to help people thrive before and during their retirement years. With a passion for educating others, Bill regularly blogs about retirement planning, hosts the podcast Keen on Retirement, and has contributed to U.S. News and World Report, Reuters, Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, Yahoo Finance, and other publications. Based in Overland Park, Kansas, Bill and his team work with clients throughout the greater Kansas City area and across the nation. To learn more, connect with him on LinkedIn or visit www.keenwealthadvisors.com.
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