The passing of a loved one is an exceptionally difficult time in life. It has been more than five years since my parents passed away, and at times the feeling of loss is so acute it catches my breath. I was honored to be their personal representative and executor, and had the time and experience to be sure their finances were well prepared for such a transition. Despite this preplanning, the process was still painful and cumbersome.
To help you navigate this process, we recently put together a “financial checklist” that can be used by you, or someone you care about, to work through the financial items that are part of this transition. The specific steps may vary depending on your unique circumstances; for example, the passing of a second spouse may come with different considerations than the passing of a first spouse, and couples with young children might have different priorities than elderly couples. To that end, we’d recommend using this checklist as a starting point, and to customize it to your specific needs.
The first half of this article covers the steps to take before your one loved has passed away (if that is possible). The second section covers the steps to take after your loved one has passed away. We invite you to use the portion of this article that is most relevant to you and to reach out if you have any questions about the ideas or items covered
Preparing for the loss of a loved one
In many families, one spouse or family member handles the financial side of things. It’s especially important to discuss these things to ensure you have all the information you need to properly manage your money when your loved one is gone. Here are some of the key items to focus on.
- Discuss your loved one’s wishes for the distribution of personal items, such as wedding rings, jewelry, family heirlooms, artwork, and collectibles.
- Is there a story or some emotional value behind these items that they would like you to share when the item is passed along?
- Is there anyone in particular your loved one would like to care for these items once they have passed?
- Speak with your loved one to be sure you are clear on their wishes for their funeral or their celebration of life.
- Discuss your loved one’s beliefs and wishes on organ donation.
- If your spouse does wish to donate their organs, make sure all the necessary paperwork has been completed.
Depending on the complexity of your estate plan, you will likely have a variety of important financial documents that you’ll need upon your spouse’s passing. Creating a digital vault of your estate planning-related documents can help you avoid the stress of combing through piles of paperwork. The documents you will likely need to include (but are not limited to):
- Last will & testament
- Title to specific assets
- Mortgage documents
- Policy information (life insurance, retirement plans, IRAs, etc.)
- Business ownership documents
- Trust documents
- Account information (banking accounts & where they’re held)
- Any other financial account information that would be difficult for you to access without your loved one
- Meet with your estate planner and financial advisor to determine if there are any last-minute financial steps that could be beneficial to take.
- Create an inventory of all investment and banking accounts, as well as any login information for each account.
- Review beneficiary designations with your loved one to be sure they are appropriate and in line with the estate plans.
- An important note: Upon your loved one’s passing, the assets in a given plan will go to the named beneficiary on that plan—even if your loved one wants those assets to go to another beneficiary.
- Create an inventory of all liabilities, such as personal loans, credit cards, auto loans, and mortgage details.
- Check on cash levels and accumulate a healthy cash reserve.
- Once the custodians of your loved one’s accounts are informed of your loved one’s passing, the accounts will be frozen—and it may be months before you can access them.
- This can create short-term cash flow problems, especially if you can’t access the checking or savings accounts that your loved one used to pay bills or cover household expenses.
- Having cash on hand is important to ensure you can cover not just your usual bills and expenses, but the short-term expenses that will arise when your loved one passes, such as paying for a Celebration of Life ceremony, covering final medical bills, arranging travel for relatives, and more.
- Create a social media account and password master list.
- If your family has a pattern of medical conditions, try to create a more detailed medical record history for future generations to reference.
- Some diseases and medical conditions are hereditary in nature, and your loved one’s medical history can help inform future generations if they are at risk of developing any of these conditions before they begin experiencing symptoms.
- You may also wish to consider having genetic mapping done for your loved one, as it can provide a more complete picture; as the saying goes, “knowledge is power.”
Following the death of a loved one
After your loved one has passed, there are a few steps you should take before doing anything else. These steps will help ensure that you have everything you need to handle your loved one’s final financial affairs and begin the process of moving forward. At SWP, we are a resource to help you prioritize your energy during this difficult time and complete the most important items first.
- Obtain a copy of the death certificate.
- Contact your estate attorney, your accountant, and your financial advisor and organize a team meeting to review the estate planning documents with your financial team and allocate responsibilities.
- If you are the executor of the estate, you will need their guidance to ensure you adhere to legal and tax requirements regarding the distribution of assets.
- If you are not, your estate attorney will still help ensure your loved one’s wishes are followed during the process.
- Notify the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213; make sure you have SSNs handy for you, your spouse, and any dependent children.
- Contact your bank and begin the appropriate retitling process.
- Secure their home or condo and all contents and create a list of all contents to avoid any potential disputes during the estate process.
- Contact relatives to inform them of any personal effects your loved one specifically wanted them to have.
- Keep a running inventory of all expenses incurred in distributing and managing the estate process.
- If there was life insurance, annuities, or pension, notify the carrier.
- Cancel long-term care and/or disability insurance.
- Notify personal lines of insurance (auto, home, and umbrella) to remove your loved one or cancel the policy.
- Contact any travel rewards programs to see if rewards can be moved to a spouse.
- Cancel cell phone contract.
Settling your loved one’s financial affairs can be a time-consuming process, but once it’s finished, it’s important not to forget about your new financial plan of action. This doesn’t need to happen right away; it’s natural to feel overwhelmed after losing a loved one, and it’s perfectly okay to wait until you feel ready to start thinking about, and planning for, your new life.
During this very difficult time, our mission is to help you manage complexity and feel confident about the path forward. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions about the steps shared in this article, or if you would like help navigating them.
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