Death in the Family: 12 Things to Do Now
The death of a loved one imposes cruel demands on the closest survivors. You, more than anyone, need time and space to handle your emotions, gather your thoughts and say goodbye. And yet demands are suddenly coming from all sides. You need to make quick decisions, from funeral flowers to financial matters, from how to feed out-of-town guests to what to say in the obituary.
To guide you through this frenetic, unreal time, we’ve put together a clip-and-save list of basic tasks. We hope you won’t need it any time soon. But if the time comes, we hope it helps.
General To-Do List
Call a funeral director
This pro will lead you through the myriad choices before and during the funeral: type of service and casket, whether there’ll be a viewing, etc. FuneralWise.com has a detailed planning guide.
Contact close friends and family
Call the key people and ask them to spread the word for you.
Make burial arrangements
You may need to buy a plot or space in a mausoleum. If the person wished to be cremated, you’ll have to arrange for the ashes to be interred or scattered.
Write an obituary
The funeral director may be able to help — or actually write it, if you prefer. If the person lived in more than one city, you’ll want to place an obituary in a paper in each place. And yes, there’s a Web site with advice on writing obits: Obituaryguide.com .
Plan a reception (optional)
After a funeral and burial service, people often gather to celebrate the life of the deceased. If you’ll be hosting this, call a local caterer who can pull together something appropriate on short notice. Better yet: Put a responsible friend in charge.
Financial To-Do List
If you’re the executor of someone’s estate, you have a long list of additional responsibilities. And even if you’re not the executor, the executor may need your help. Here are the basics.
Find the will
You need the original; the court won’t accept a copy. Then you’ll have to register the will at the local probate office.
Make like an accountant
That is, locate all the essential information about your loved one’s assets and liabilities: insurance policies, bank accounts, retirement accounts, investments and loans. You’ll need all these to manage upcoming transactions and to notify the financial providers.
Contact the person’s employer
This will help you handle retirement plan distributions, employer-purchased insurance payouts and ensure that any vacation pay due goes to beneficiaries.
Watch the mail
Something will eventually arrive about an account or loan the deceased had, even ones he never told anyone about, says Sid Blum, a financial planner in Evanston, Ill. “There may be assets that aren’t even known to the family,” he says. Cancel magazine subscriptions, catalogs, and anything else arriving by mail regularly.
Pay the bills
Make sure you’ve arranged to wrap up any outstanding liabilities: the monthly utility bill, the mortgage, credit card bills, car loans, etc.
File tax returns
You will eventually have to send in federal and state income tax returns and possibly estate tax returns. A federal estate-tax filing is required for estates with combined gross assets and prior taxable gifts exceeding $3.5 million. Typically, this is due within nine months of the death. State estate tax rules vary.
Consult an attorney
If you’re not comfortable handling an estate, you may want to bring in an estate attorney. At the very least, check in with one after you’ve completed what you can. (Financial planner Jonathan Pond, of Newton, Mass., also has published an excellent, exhaustive checklist for executors.) “I’d recommend just saying ‘Hey, this is what I’ve done, here’s where I’m at, am I missing anything?’” says Diane Park, a financial planner in Minneapolis. “That might take just an hour or two of an attorney’s time.”