Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult things any of us will have to endure in our lifetimes. The experience is made all the more challenging by the myriad of paperwork and red tape that the survivor must wade through at precisely the moment in their life when they’re most ill-equipped to deal with it.

With that in mind, here’s a brief checklist that covers what a survivor needs to do in order to navigate this emotional time.

  1. Call your trusted advisors. They are there to help. Even if the death is expected, you will probably be in a state of shock. The advisors can gently help you prioritize what needs to be done.
  2. Arrange for the care of minors or pets. You’ll need to find, read and understand what the will says about guardians for minors. We’ve given you some guidelines on how to prepare for pets’ care in the next checklist.
  3. Arrange for security of the home, car, other property. Go through the home to take care of perishable food, plants and other issues that need to be cared for in the near-term.
  4. Make funeral or memorial service arrangements. Sometimes people set up pre-paid and pre-arranged instructions. See if there are any such directives. If not, work with the funeral home or spiritual institution you choose to make all the arrangements including submitting the obituary, setting a time for a service, and making burial or cremation arrangements.
  5. Gather relevant documents.Start by locating all essential papers that may include the following:
    • A copy of the will, and if applicable, trusts
    • Recent statements for any IRAs, 401(k)s, investment accounts, bank accounts, and pension plans
    • Insurance policies
    • Social Security numbers
    • Military discharge papers, if applicable
    • Marriage license
    • Divorce decrees from previous marriages, if applicable
    • Children’s birth certificates
    • Death certificate (plan on needing at least ten copies)
    • Company benefit records
    • List of all user names and passwords, if available
  6. Inventory all digital assets. Digital assets may include the following:
    • All electronic devices that you use to store or access data—computers, smartphones, tablets, etc.
    • Back-up media, whether local (e.g., external hard drives), or remote (e.g., the cloud or storage providers)
    • All financial accounts that are accessed online such as bank accounts, credit card accounts, utility bills, or other accounts
    • Digital provider accounts including email, as well as social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram), commercial (iTunes, Amazon), on-line photo archives (Flickr, Google Photos, Shutterfly)
    • Proprietary websites, domains and blogs
    • Personal and family photographs and videos
    • Creative works and intellectual property (e.g., manuscripts, music, photography, videos, patents or trademarks, etc.)

    Once you have an inventory, you can determine which items you’ll need to access, which need to be closed and what, if any, personal data needs to be deleted. Make note of user names, passwords, or passcodes.

  7. File for life insurance benefits. Most insurers will pay out a death benefit within a week or so of receiving a copy of the deceased’s death certificate. In most cases, they’ll place it in an account earning a nominal amount of interest, which will allow you to focus elsewhere for the time being. But eventually you’ll want to transfer that money to your investment or bank accounts.

    If you cannot find the insurance policies, MIB Solutions, an insurance membership corporation (www.mib.com), will help you find it for a fee. Alternatively, the American Council of Life Insurers (www.acli.com) offers tips on finding a missing policy.

  8. Contact the deceased’s employer. Most employers will quickly pay any wages owed and unused vacation or sick time. If the employee died on the job, you may also be eligible for accidental death and dismemberment benefits.
    You should also talk to the human resource department about health insurance benefits, if you were enrolled through the deceased’s employer. At a minimum, spouses may be able to retain the coverage for up to 36 months through COBRA.
  9. Check your cash reserves. Between funeral costs and a host of other unexpected expenses—you can find that you’re burning through cash more quickly than you anticipated, so it’s a good idea to make sure you have a bit more in your cash reserves than normal. Six-to-eight months of living expenses should be sufficient to buy you the time you need to get your legs under you.
  10. Consider government death benefits. Widows or widowers may be eligible for Social Security at age 60. Families with dependent children under 18 are also eligible for survivors’ benefits. Visit www.ssa.gov to learn more about eligibility.

    Military veterans are eligible for a free burial in a national cemetery. The Veterans Administration will also provide a flag, headstone, and financial assistance. If you choose to have burial in a private cemetery, the VA will also arrange to have a military funeral conducted at the gravesite.

  11. Consider retirement plan options. If you were the primary beneficiary of your spouse’s IRA, and he or she was the original owner, you may transfer the plan’s assets into an IRA in your name. Doing so will prevent you from having to take any distributions from it until you turn 72. If your spouse was not the original owner, or if you do not want to transfer it to an IRA in your name, you may be able to take a distribution from it without having to pay any early withdrawal penalties. You will owe income taxes on any distribution, however. You’re also able to roll your spouse’s 401(k) plan directly into an IRA in your name. Some employers will permit you to keep the assets in the company’s plan, if you choose. Doing so may allow you to tap those assets earlier if you are considerably younger than your spouse while avoiding early withdrawal penalties.

    If you are the beneficiary of a retirement plan, but not the spouse, you cannot roll over the plan to your own IRA. You can set up a beneficiary IRA account and you will have to take required minimum distributions (for both traditional and Roth IRAs). You can also “cash out” the plan, but then you would owe tax on the whole distribution.

    Consulting with a trusted financial advisor may help you determine which option is best for you.

  12. Settle the estate. The will names an executor, who will handle the administrative duties of distributing the estate, and you’ll be working very closely with them during this process. You should also consider enlisting an estate attorney to help you file any estate tax returns and final income tax returns that are required. Here are some things to consider:
    • Get a Tax ID number (EIN) for the estate. Your attorney or CPA can easily set up the EIN number.
    • Determine the need for probate.
    • Determine if you need or want to file an estate tax return (Form 706). The deadline is nine months after date of death. You may not need to file if under federal and state thresholds, but you may want to for “portability.”
    • File income tax returns (prior year and partial year if necessary). Your accountant will need the last two years’ tax returns. The final income tax return is due April 15th of the year following the date of death unless the estate stays open for a longer period.
    • If decedent was over 72, take last required minimum distribution from IRA.
    • File any state death tax returns.
    • Prepare an inventory of all assets and liabilities to settle the estate. You’ll need date of death values for all bank and brokerage accounts.
    • Determine if you need to have any appraisals done on house, jewelry, valuables
    • Inventory the safe deposit box.
    • List all expenses of the estate.
    • Distribute the estate. Hold back enough to pay attorney, accountant, and final expenses. Be careful to get the correct titling for new accounts to receive the assets.
  13. Take care of the miscellany. You’ve now taken care of the most immediate needs, but a few more issues remain. At some point, you’ll have to re-title all of the assets, such as the house, car, savings accounts, etc. You’ll also want to change the names on the checking accounts and credit cards. In each case, you’ll need to make your request in writing, and enclose a copy of the death certificate.

    You should change the beneficiaries on your own life insurance policies and retirement accounts if the deceased was previously named on these. Now is also a good time to revisit your own will and any trusts, to make sure that they’re up-to-date.

  14. Take a fresh look at spending needs. You’ve been through a lot. Once you get past the first several months, it may make sense to go through credit card and bank statements to get a better idea of what you are spending now. It will be important to see if that spending level is realistic given your income and what you inherit. It may be helpful to meet with your advisor to re-assess spending going forward. It may be more or less than you spent in the past.
  15. Create a memorial. Sometimes one of the most healing things to do is create a small memorial in the deceased’s honor. It needn’t be anything lavish; something as simple as a garden in the corner of your yard or a small paver in the walkway with their name on it can serve as a tangible tribute to their life, and to the role they played in yours.

Above all else, recognize your own emotional needs throughout this process. You’re going through one of the most challenging phases of your life. So by all means enlist the help of your friends and family as you get back on your feet. It will help both you and them get through this difficult period.

Download the Survivor’s Checklist Worksheet » (PDF)

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