Even as you grieve the loss of a loved one, the tasks required at this time can be stressful and overwhelming. If you’ve been named as the “executor” in the will, you could end up spending a year or more settling the estate.
But you don’t have to do this alone. Family and friends can assist. And you can reach out to your loved one’s lawyer, accountant or financial adviser to help navigate some of the legal or financial matters that may crop up.
Use this 6-step checklist to prepare for some of the tasks you may encounter immediately after a death and in the following months.
1. Notify key people of your loved one’s death
The people your loved one was close to will appreciate hearing news about the passing. If possible, tell as many of them directly and in advance of an obituary being published. This includes your loved one’s family and friends, their employer and co-workers (if employed), their church or other social organizations, and the executor of the estate (if it isn’t you).
If you aren’t sure who they were close to, check their phone contacts and social media, if you have access to their accounts. You may also choose to make an announcement from your own social media accounts to alert people to your loved one’s passing.
2. Look for funeral instructions
If you’re fortunate, your loved one left a “letter of last instruction” that can tell you of any advance funeral planning that has been done. For example, your loved one might have arranged to donate their body to science, pre-paid for their funeral, or provided details about memorial service preferences.
If no advance funeral planning has been done, you’ll need to make these kinds of decisions yourself, or with the help of others who want to pitch in.
You’ll also need to cover the costs if there’s no pre-paid arrangement or an insurance policy to help with related expenses. If you don’t have enough money saved in an emergency fund, you could see if the funeral home will agree to be paid through an installment plan. You could set up a GoFundMe account to raise money. Or you might consider paying the bill by credit card and then taking out a low-interest-rate personal loan to pay down the bill balance.
To aid grieving loved ones during this difficult time, the Federal Trade Commission requires funeral homes to provide a general price list. You should be able to select only the arrangements you want, rather than having to buy a package of goods and services.
3. Make final arrangements as needed
Without a letter of last instruction, you likely will need to make several important decisions in a short amount of time. These can include:
- Choose a funeral provider.
- Decide on a traditional burial or cremation.
- Purchase a burial plot, if applicable.
- Select a casket and burial vault, or a cremation urn.
- Determine whether to have a traditional funeral with visitation and a service at a place of worship, or perhaps a memorial service at a later date.
- Compile a list of people who will participate in the funeral, such as a eulogist and pallbearers.
- Choose the readings, music, and/or flowers for the service.
The funeral home staff can walk you through the process and will handle many of the details, such as taking the deceased into its care, coordinating with the cemetery, submitting the obituary to news outlets, and other tasks to help make sure the process runs smoothly.
4. Get copies of the death certificate
This documentation is necessary in order to make a claim on life insurance, place a death notice on credit reports, close financial accounts, and notify creditors. You or the executor may need as many as 10 to 20 copies.
The funeral home can order death certificates for you, or you can get copies through the vital records department in the state or county where the deceased individual lived.
5. Notify agencies and companies
Several organizations will need to be notified of the death by the family or executor. In many cases, you also will need to submit a copy of the death certificate along with the notification.
Organizations you may need to notify can include:
- Social Security Administration. The funeral home often notifies Social Security of a death if it has the deceased’s Social Security number. If not, you or the executor can notify the agency by calling 800-772-1213.
- Department of Motor Vehicles. Cancel the deceased’s driver’s license in the state where they resided.
- Service providers. Cancel cellphone, streaming, cable, utilities, or other services no longer needed. If there’s real estate to be disbursed as part of the estate, it’s a good idea to continue the water and electric/gas services until ownership changes hands.
- Credit reporting companies. You only need to contact one of the three major credit reporting companies—Equifax, Experian or TransUnion. It will share the death notification with the other two on your behalf. A death notice will be placed on credit reports, which can help prevent identity theft.
- Investment companies, banks, and life insurers. Brokerages, banks, investment companies, and life insurers will directly transfer any assets to the beneficiaries listed on the accounts or policies after the death is confirmed.
- Credit card companies. Close accounts and destroy credit cards immediately after the death of the cards’ sole owner. For jointly owned cards, notify the issuer of the death of one co-owner. That shouldn’t affect the other owner’s ability to continue using the credit card. Be sure to inform any authorized users—those who can use a card but aren’t liable for the debt—that they must stop using the deceased’s credit card or risk being charged with fraud.
- Social media and email accounts. Some social media sites allow account owners to name a “legacy contact” who can delete their account after their death or set up a memorial page. Without a legacy contact, a family member or the executor can request that an account be deleted by the social media company after providing certain documentation.
6. Settle the estate
The job of the executor, sometimes called a personal representative, is to use the estate’s assets to pay any outstanding bills or debts and then distribute what’s left over to heirs in accordance with instructions in the will.
If there is no will, the court will assign someone—typically a surviving spouse first and then an adult child—to administer the estate and distribute its assets according to state law.
If you’re the executor, your duties in the near-term and the months ahead can include the following:
- Locate and read the original will, and file it with the courthouse in the county where the deceased lived. A court must validate the will.
- Secure the residence and valuables.
- Ensure you have enough copies of the death certificate for all required filings.
- Determine whether the estate must go through probate, which is a court-supervised distribution of assets. In many states, small estates can avoid probate. If the estate must go through probate, the process will vary by state.
- Notify all interested parties, including heirs, beneficiaries and creditors.
- Make an inventory of all assets.
- Make a list of all liabilities that must be paid off.
- Get the deceased’s credit reports, which will reveal any outstanding credit accounts or loans.
- Have the deceased’s mail forwarded to you, which can help you find out about any bills that need to be paid or assets sitting in accounts. However, do your due diligence to ensure the claims are legitimate, rather than a scammer taking advantage of the situation.
- Consider setting up a separate bank account for the estate. You can use this temporary account to pay bills or to deposit any income received.
- Arrange to pay bills or other debts, such as medical bills or reimbursing someone for funeral expenses.
- Maintain the house or other property the deceased owned until it can be transferred to heirs or be sold.
- Sell remaining assets if you need to raise money to pay off creditors.
- File the final federal and state income tax returns for the deceased, and pay any taxes that are due.
- File a state estate tax return, if required by state law, and pay any tax liability. The deadline is usually within nine months after the death. Few estates are large enough these days to require the filing of a federal estate tax return.
- After paying off creditors, disburse assets to heirs under the terms of the will.
Fulfilling the duties of an executor can be time-consuming, particularly if the estate is complex. But an executor can use estate resources to hire professional help, such as an estate planning lawyer, an accountant, appraiser or financial adviser. For do-it-yourselfers, Nolo.com offers some comprehensive resources for executors.
Executors typically can be paid a “reasonable compensation” for their work, although some states set a cap on the amount.
Consider making things easier for your own survivors by getting key estate planning documents in place. See what documents you’ll need in our Essential Guide to Estate Planning.
And if you haven’t already, take a moment to name or update your beneficiaries through the complimentary life insurance that’s available to eligible NEA members.