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The death of a family member or close friend is often a difficult time, even if the death was expected. If you have been tasked with handling the affairs of a loved one who has passed away, there are several things that you should do to protect the estate and honor their wishes.
1. Review the Estate Plan
Ideally, your loved one created an estate plan while they were still alive. A good plan includes a will, updated designation of beneficiaries on insurance policies and retirement plans, a living will and an advance directive regarding medical care. In some cases, it may also include a living trust that allows for a simpler distribution of assets after the trust creator dies.
If your loved one left a will, they may have designated an executor and provided information on how they wished their assets to be distributed. However, some people die intestate, which means that they did not have a legal will. In those cases, a probate court judge will appoint an administrator of the estate.
In cases where an estate plan has been made, it is likely that the deceased has already worked with an attorney and, possibly, a financial professional. However, you are not obligated to work with the deceased’s attorney or financial adviser. You can hire a lawyer or an accountant of your own choosing. In many cases, it is a good idea to hire professionals or to continue working with those who created the estate plan, as this can make it easier to manage and close the estate.
2. Obtain Death Certificates
While funeral homes often make the initial requests for certified copies of death certificates on behalf of clients, many people are surprised to find that they haven’t ordered enough. Insurance companies, employers, creditors, and utility companies will all require a death certificate to close out accounts or start paying benefits.
If you didn’t request death certificates at the time of your loved one’s death, or you didn’t request enough, you can contact the agency in your state that handles vital records and file a request.
3. Notify Government Agencies, Financial Institutions and Employers
Begin notifying government agencies, financial institutions, and employers as soon as possible after a loved one dies. Doing this ensures that benefit payments are handled correctly and protects against scammers appropriating the deceased’s identity.
Here are some agencies, businesses and other organizations that should be notified:
- Social Security Administration
- Veterans Administration
- Insurance companies
- Financial institutions (banks, credit unions, investment and retirement firms)
- The U.S. Postal Service (redirect mail to the executor)
- Utility companies
- Credit card companies
- Online shopping accounts, particularly those that have stored the deceased’s credit card or banking information for quick check-out.
- Alternative financial companies, such as PayPal or Venmo
4. Begin Financial Housekeeping
If the deceased left a valid will, they will have named an executor to manage the estate. In cases where there is no valid will, the probate court will appoint an administrator. The executor or administrator coordinates the distribution of remaining assets after paying all debts.
Identify and stop any ongoing financial obligations and payments to companies and organizations such as:
- Internet service providers
- Utility companies
- Subscription services
- Charitable organizations
5. Begin Digital Housekeeping
Digital property is often overlooked in estate planning. The deceased may have had an email address, a blog, or a presence on social media. Identify these accounts and contact the platforms or Internet service providers to begin the process of shutting down or memorializing these accounts.
Each email provider, web host, or social media platform has its own process for managing accounts after their owners die or become incapacitated. The executor of the will may have to submit a death certificate and other documents to facilitate these changes.