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Handling Financial and Legal Issues after a Loss

In the weeks following a loved one's death, there can be a lot of paperwork to handle and a lot of pressure to do things quickly. These things should be handled carefully, one step at a time, because the decisions made now may have a significant impact on the family's financial future.

The following guidelines can help with handling important matters.

Consult with a professional advisor knowledgeable in estate matters.

It's helpful to discuss estate settlement and inheritance matters with an expert. If an estate planning attorney, accountant or financial advisor hasn't already been engaged, one should be carefully selected right away. When choosing a professional advisor:

  • Interview several in person.
  • Ask about their educational and professional background, the size of the firm, how long they've been practicing and what licenses they hold.
  • Request a written explanation of hourly rates and fees.
Request 10 or more certified copies of the death certificate.

In most cases, several copies of the death certificate will be needed to claim benefits from Social Security and insurance companies, and when dealing with banks and brokerage companies. These can be obtained from the county registrar, health department or funeral director.

Locate and organize important legal and financial documents.

Getting organized can be difficult at this time, but it will help you settle your loved one's affairs. Some of the important documents you need to settle an estate include:

  • Will, trust documents and letter of instruction, as well as any codicils or amendments
  • Funeral and burial instructions
  • Social Security number
  • Birth, marriage and death certificates
  • Bank, brokerage and retirement account statements
  • Stock certificates or bonds
  • Documentation of business ownership interests
  • Pension plan information
  • Life insurance policies and annuities
  • Prior income and gift tax returns
  • Real property deeds and motor vehicle titles
  • Casualty and/or property insurance policies
  • Health insurance information
  • Outstanding bills or obligations
  • Inventory of household goods and personal belongings

Many people don't know the real value of their estates or the legal complexities of how their asset and liabilities are held. The financial inventory worksheet (PDF) and personal net worth worksheet (PDF) will help you, or whoever is responsible, get the information needed to make smart financial decisions about the estate.

Notify financial institutions.

Notify banks, investment firms, mortgage holders, department of motor vehicles and other institutions of your loved one's death as soon as possible. This reduces the potential for someone to use the deceased's name illegally.

Apply for a Tax ID.

As probate estates and trusts are separate legal entities from both the deceased individual and their beneficiaries, a tax ID number needs to be applied for in order to ensure that those entities are properly reported and accounted for.

Our Two Cents
Beware of anyone preying financially on surviving family members. Watch out for claims by unknown individuals who lack documentation.


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The information on this website is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal, or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner, or investment manager.

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