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Death of a Famiyl Member
When a family member dies, you must make financial decisions while numb with grief. One strategy: Get all the help you can from friends, family, and financial professionals. Another: Postpone life-changing decisions until your grief has subsided. The checklist on the left will help you cope.

Make Funeral Arrangements

One of the most difficult purchases you will ever make is a funeral.

When you’re overcome with grief, how do you make a complex purchase such as a funeral? With the help of family and the assistance of a professional funeral director.

Most funeral providers are professionals who strive to serve their clients' needs and best interests. But some aren't. They may take advantage of their clients through inflated prices, overcharges, double charges or unnecessary services.

Fortunately, there's a federal law that makes it easier for you to choose only those goods and services you want or need and to pay only for those you select, whether you are making arrangements pre-need or at need.

The Funeral Rule, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, requires funeral directors to give you itemized prices in person and, if you ask, over the phone. The Rule also requires funeral directors to give you other information about their goods and services.

For example, if you ask about funeral arrangements in person, the funeral home must give you a written price list to keep that shows the goods and services the home offers.

If you want to buy a casket or outer burial container, the funeral provider must show you descriptions of the available selections and the prices before actually showing you the caskets. Many funeral providers offer various "packages" of commonly selected goods and services that make up a funeral.

But when you arrange for a funeral, you have the right to buy individual goods and services. That is, you do not have to accept a package that may include items you do not want.

According to the Funeral Rule:

  • You have the right to choose the funeral goods and services you want (with some exceptions).
  • The funeral provider must state this right in writing on the general price list.
  • If state or local law requires you to buy any particular item, the funeral provider must disclose it on the price list, with a reference to the specific law.
  • The funeral provider may not refuse, or charge a fee, to handle a casket you bought elsewhere.
  • A funeral provider that offers cremations must make alternative containers available.

What Kind of Funeral Do You Want?

Every family is different, and not everyone wants the same type of funeral. Funeral practices are influenced by religious and cultural traditions, costs and personal preferences.

These factors help determine whether the funeral will be elaborate or simple, public or private, religious or secular, and where it will be held. They also influence whether the body will be present at the funeral, if there will be a viewing or visitation, and if so, whether the casket will be open or closed, and whether the remains will be buried or cremated.

Among the choices you'll need to make are whether you want one of these basic types of funerals, or something in between.

"Traditional," full-service funeral. This type of funeral, often referred to by funeral providers as a "traditional" funeral, usually includes a viewing or visitation and formal funeral service, use of a hearse to transport the body to the funeral site and cemetery, and burial, entombment or cremation of the remains. It is generally the most expensive type of funeral.

In addition to the funeral home's basic services fee, costs often include embalming and dressing the body; rental of the funeral home for the viewing or service; and use of vehicles to transport the family if they don't use their own. The costs of a casket, cemetery plot or crypt and other funeral goods and services also must be factored in.

Direct burial. The body is buried shortly after death, usually in a simple container. No viewing or visitation is involved, so no embalming is necessary. A memorial service may be held at the graveside or later.

Direct burial usually costs less than the "traditional," full-service funeral. Costs include the funeral home's basic services fee, as well as transportation and care of the body, the purchase of a casket or burial container and a cemetery plot or crypt.

If the family chooses to be at the cemetery for the burial, the funeral home often charges an additional fee for a graveside service.

Direct cremation. The body is cremated shortly after death, without embalming. The cremated remains are placed in an urn or other container.

No viewing or visitation is involved, although a memorial service may be held, with or without the cremated remains present. The remains can be kept in the home, buried or placed in a crypt or niche in a cemetery, or buried or scattered in a favorite spot.

Direct cremation usually costs less than the "traditional," full-service funeral. Costs include the funeral home's basic services fee, as well as transportation and care of the body.

A crematory fee may be included or, if the funeral home does not own the crematory, the fee may be added on. There also will be a charge for an urn or other container. The cost of a cemetery plot or crypt is included only if the Funeral providers who offer direct cremations also must offer to provide an alternative container that can be used in place of a casket.

Choosing a Funeral Provider

Many people don't realize that they are not legally required to use a funeral home to plan and conduct a funeral.

However, because they have little experience with the many details and legal requirements involved and may be emotionally distraught when it's time to make the plans, many people find the services of a professional funeral home to be a comfort.

Consumers often select a funeral home or cemetery because it's close to home, has served the family in the past, or has been recommended by someone they trust.

But people who limit their search to just one funeral home may risk paying more than necessary for the funeral or narrowing their choice of goods and services.

Comparison shopping need not be difficult, especially if it's done before the need for a funeral arises. If you visit a funeral home in person, the funeral provider is required by law to give you a general price list itemizing the cost of the items and services the home offers.

If the general price list does not include specific prices of caskets or outer burial containers, the law requires the funeral director to show you the price lists for those items before showing you the items.

Sometimes it's more convenient and less stressful to "price shop" funeral homes by telephone. The Funeral Rule requires funeral directors to provide price information over the phone to any caller who asks for it. In addition, many funeral homes are happy to mail you their price lists, although that is not required by law.

When comparing prices, be sure to consider the total cost of all the items together, in addition to the costs of single items. Every funeral home should have price lists that include all the items essential for the different types of arrangements it offers.

Many funeral homes offer package funerals that may cost less than purchasing individual items or services. Offering package funerals is permitted by law, as long as an itemized price list also is provided. But only by using the price lists can you accurately compare total costs.

In addition, there's a growing trend toward consolidation in the funeral home industry, and many neighborhood funeral homes are thought to be locally owned when in fact, they're owned by a national corporation. If this issue is important to you, you may want to ask if the funeral home is locally owned.

Funeral Costs

Funeral costs include:

  1. Basic services fee for the funeral director and staff
    The Funeral Rule allows funeral providers to charge a basic services fee that customers cannot decline to pay. The basic services fee includes services that are common to all funerals, regardless of the specific arrangement.

    These include funeral planning, securing the necessary permits and copies of death certificates, preparing the notices, sheltering the remains, and coordinating the arrangements with the cemetery, crematory or other third parties. The fee does not include charges for optional services or merchandise.
  2. Charges for other services and merchandise
    These are costs for optional goods and services such as transporting the remains; embalming and other preparation; use of the funeral home for the viewing, ceremony or memorial service; use of equipment and staff for a graveside service; use of a hearse or limousine; a casket, outer burial container or alternate container; and cremation or interment.
  3. Cash advances
    These are fees charged by the funeral home for goods and services it buys from outside vendors on your behalf, including flowers, obituary notices, pallbearers, officiating clergy, and organists and soloists. Some funeral providers charge you their cost for the items they buy on your behalf. Others add a service fee to their cost.

    The Funeral Rule requires those who charge an extra fee to disclose that fact in writing, although it doesn't require them to specify the amount of their markup. The Rule also requires funeral providers to tell you if there are refunds, discounts or rebates from the supplier on any cash advance item.

Calculating the Actual Cost

The funeral provider must give you an itemized statement of the total cost of the funeral goods and services you have selected when you are making the arrangements.

If the funeral provider doesn't know the cost of the cash advance items at the time, he or she is required to give you a written "good faith estimate." This statement also must disclose any legal, cemetery or crematory requirements that you purchase any specific funeral goods or services.

The Funeral Rule does not require any specific format for this information. Funeral providers may include it in any document they give you at the end of your discussion about funeral arrangements.

Services and Products

Many funeral homes require embalming if you're planning a viewing or visitation. But embalming generally is not necessary or legally required if the body is buried or cremated shortly after death. Eliminating this service can save you hundreds of dollars.

Under the Funeral Rule, a funeral provider:

  • May not provide embalming services without permission.
  • May not falsely state that embalming is required by law.
  • Must disclose in writing that embalming is not required by law, except in certain special cases.
  • May not charge a fee for unauthorized embalming unless embalming is required by state law.
  • Must disclose in writing that you usually have the right to choose a disposition, such as direct cremation or immediate burial, that does not require embalming if you do not want this service.
  • Must disclose in writing that some funeral arrangements, such as a funeral with viewing, may make embalming a practical necessity and, if so, a required purchase.

For a "traditional," full-service funeral: A casket often is the single most expensive item you'll buy if you plan a "traditional," full-service funeral. Caskets vary widely in style and price and are sold primarily for their visual appeal.

Typically, they're constructed of metal, wood, fiberboard, fiberglass or plastic. Although an average casket costs slightly more than $2,000, some mahogany, bronze or copper caskets sell for as much as $10,000.

When you visit a funeral home or showroom to shop for a casket, the Funeral Rule requires the funeral director to show you a list of caskets the company sells, with descriptions and prices, before showing you the caskets. Industry studies show that the average casket shopper buys one of the first three models shown, generally the middle-priced of the three.

So it's in the seller's best interest to start out by showing you higher-end models. If you haven't seen some of the lower-priced models on the price list, ask to see them - but don't be surprised if they're not prominently displayed, or not on display at all.

Traditionally, caskets have been sold only by funeral homes. But with increasing frequency, showrooms and websites operated by "third-party" dealers are selling caskets. You can buy a casket from one of these dealers and have it shipped directly to the funeral home. The Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to agree to use a casket you bought elsewhere, and doesn't allow them to charge you a fee for using it.

No matter where or when you're buying a casket, it's important to remember that its purpose is to provide a dignified way to move the body before burial or cremation. No casket, regardless of its qualities or cost, will preserve a body forever.

Metal caskets frequently are described as "gasketed," "protective" or "sealer" caskets. These terms mean that the casket has a rubber gasket or some other feature that is designed to delay the penetration of water into the casket and prevent rust. The Funeral Rule forbids claims that these features help preserve the remains indefinitely because they don't. They just add to the cost of the casket.

Most metal caskets are made from rolled steel of varying gauges - the lower the gauge, the thicker the steel. Some metal caskets come with a warranty for longevity. Wooden caskets generally are not gasketed and don't have a warranty for longevity. They can be hardwood like mahogany, walnut, cherry or oak, or softwood like pine. Pine caskets are a less expensive option, but funeral homes rarely display them. Manufacturers of both wooden and metal caskets usually warrant workmanship and materials.

For cremation: Many families that opt to have their loved ones cremated rent a casket from the funeral home for the visitation and funeral, eliminating the cost of buying a casket. If you opt for visitation and cremation, ask about the rental option.

For those who choose a direct cremation without a viewing or other ceremony where the body is present, the funeral provider must offer an inexpensive unfinished wood box or alternative container, a non-metal enclosure - pressboard, cardboard or canvas - that is cremated with the body.

Under the Funeral Rule, funeral directors who offer direct cremations:

  • May not tell you that state or local law requires a casket for direct cremations, because none do;
  • Must disclose in writing your right to buy an unfinished wood box or an alternative container for a direct cremation; and
  • Must make an unfinished wood box or other alternative container available for direct cremations.

Burial Vaults or Grave Liners
Burial vaults or grave liners, also known as burial containers, are commonly used in "traditional," full-service funerals. The vault or liner is placed in the ground before burial, and the casket is lowered into it at burial. The purpose is to prevent the ground from caving in as the casket deteriorates over time. A grave liner is made of reinforced concrete and will satisfy any cemetery requirement. Grave liners cover only the top and sides of the casket. A burial vault is more substantial and expensive than a grave liner. It surrounds the casket in concrete or another material and may be sold with a warranty of protective strength.

State laws do not require a vault or liner, and funeral providers may not tell you otherwise. However, keep in mind that many cemeteries require some type of outer burial container to prevent the grave from sinking in the future. Neither grave liners nor burial vaults are designed to prevent the eventual decomposition of human remains. It is illegal for funeral providers to claim that a vault will keep water, dirt or other debris from penetrating into the casket if that's not true.

Before showing you any outer burial containers, a funeral provider is required to give you a list of prices and descriptions. It may be less expensive to buy an outer burial container from a third-party dealer than from a funeral home or cemetery. Compare prices from several sources before you select a model.

Preservative Processes and Products
As far back as the ancient Egyptians, people have used oils, herbs and special body preparations to help preserve the bodies of their dead. Yet, no process or products have been devised to preserve a body in the grave indefinitely. The Funeral Rule prohibits funeral providers from telling you that it can be done. For example, funeral providers may not claim that either embalming or a particular type of casket will preserve the body of the deceased for an unlimited time.

Cemetery Sites
When you are purchasing a cemetery plot, consider the location of the cemetery and whether it meets the requirements of your family's religion. Other considerations include what, if any, restrictions the cemetery places on burial vaults purchased elsewhere, the type of monuments or memorials it allows, and whether flowers or other remembrances may be placed on graves.

Cost is another consideration. Cemetery plots can be expensive, especially in metropolitan areas. Most, but not all, cemeteries require you to purchase a grave liner, which will cost several hundred dollars. Note that there are charges - usually hundreds of dollars - to open a grave for interment and additional charges to fill it in. Perpetual care on a cemetery plot sometimes is included in the purchase price, but it's important to clarify that point before you buy the site or service. If it's not included, look for a separate endowment care fee for maintenance and grounds keeping.

If you plan to bury your loved one's cremated remains in a mausoleum or columbarium, you can expect to purchase a crypt and pay opening and closing fees, as well as charges for endowment care and other services. The FTC's Funeral Rule does not cover cemeteries and mausoleums unless they sell both funeral goods and funeral services, so be cautious in making your purchase to ensure that you receive all pertinent price and other information, and that you're being dealt with fairly.

Veterans Cemeteries
All veterans are entitled to a free burial in a national cemetery and a grave marker. This eligibility also extends to some civilians who have provided military-related service and some Public Health Service personnel. Spouses and dependent children also are entitled to a lot and marker when buried in a national cemetery. There are no charges for opening or closing the grave, for a vault or liner, or for setting the marker in a national cemetery. The family generally is responsible for other expenses, including transportation to the cemetery. For more information, visit the Department of Veterans Affairs' website at To reach the regional Veterans office in your area, call 1-800-827-1000.

In addition, many states have established state veterans cemeteries. Eligibility requirements and other details vary. Contact your state for more information.

Beware of commercial cemeteries that advertise so-called "veterans' specials." These cemeteries sometimes offer a free plot for the veteran, but charge exorbitant rates for an adjoining plot for the spouse, as well as high fees for opening and closing each grave. Evaluate the bottom-line cost to be sure the special is as special as you may be led to believe.

Federal Trade Commission

Collect Key Documents

A death in the family triggers a lot of paperwork. Don’t let it weigh you down.

After a loved one passes, the government, employers, Social Security, and other organizations will need to know what happened. Do what you can and enlist help from family members.

The Death Certificate

Many of the offices or agencies you contact will request copies of the death certificate. You can buy certified copies of the death certificate through your funeral director or directly from the county health department. There is usually a charge of a few dollars per certificate. It is worth paying the money for the certified copies, since many companies require it.

Tip: Get at least 10 certified copies of the death certificate.

Any Insurance Policies

You will probably find copies of life, health, home mortgage, accident, and other insurance policies in a safe deposit box or with your spouse’s personal belongings. Any of these insurance policies could be sources of possible benefits.

Get Social Security Numbers

You need the Social Security numbers of your spouse and any dependent children.

Tip: Your spouse's Social Security number can be found on the death certificate.

Military Discharge Papers

You will need a copy of a certificate of honorable (or other than dishonorable) discharge if your spouse was a veteran. If you cannot find a copy of the discharge, write to:

The Department of Defense
National Personnel Record Center
9700 Page Boulevard
St. Louis, MO 63132

Marriage Certificate

If you are going to apply for benefits based on your marital relationship, you will need copies of your marriage certificate. Copies are available at the office of the County Clerk where the marriage license was issued.

Childrens' Birth Certificates

You will need copies of birth certificates for dependent children. Copies are available at either the state or county public health offices where the child was born.

The Will

You will need a copy of the will. Your spouse's lawyer may have the will or it may be in a safe, a safe deposit box, or with your spouse’s personal belongings.

List of Assets

A complete list of all of your spouse's property, including real estate, stocks, bonds, savings accounts, and personal property, will be needed. Land titles, stocks certificates, and other financial papers may be stored in a safe deposit box or other secure place

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File for Life Insurance Benefits

Life insurance benefits can unlock your financial future after the death of a loved one. Filing a claim is the key.

Filing a life insurance claim is emotionally difficult, but fairly straightforward to do. Ask your life insurance agent to guide you.

Filing a Life Insurance Claim

When there is a death in the family, life insurance can provide cash to meet pressing needs. To receive the benefits that you are entitled to, you first must file a claim. To help guide you through that process follow these steps:

Obtain several copies of the death certificate. While a death certificate is the standard form of documentation required when filing a life insurance claim there may be acceptable alternatives in extraordinary circumstances. Your life insurance representative will know what forms and documents are needed to proceed with your claim.

Contact your insurance agent. The life insurance agent who sold the policy can help you fill out the necessary forms and act as an intermediary with the insurance company. If you do not have an insurance agent, or do not know the name of your loved one's agent, contact the life insurance company directly.

As a precaution, you shouldn't store a life insurance policy--which contains important contact and policy information--in a safety deposit box. In most states, boxes are sealed temporarily upon one's death, which could delay a settlement.

In the case of a group life insurance policy, such as one offered by an employer, first contact the group plan sponsor or the human resources department at the employer directly. If you're unable to contact the employer, you may contact the life insurance company directly.

Submit a certified copy of the death certificate (or acceptable alternative in extraordinary circumstances) from the funeral director with the policy claim. Once the claim is submitted, a settlement should be issued to you shortly.

Once a life insurance claim is submitted, you will need to determine how the proceeds will be distributed. Some settlement options that may be available to you are:

  • Lump sum: You receive the entire death benefit in a single amount, which allows you to use what you need for immediate expenses and invest the rest.
  • Specific income provision: The life insurance company pays you both principal and interest on a predetermined schedule.
  • Life income option: You receive a guaranteed income for life. The amount of income depends on the death benefit specified in the life insurance policy, your gender, and your age at the time of the insured's death.
  • Interest income option: The company holds onto the proceeds and pays you interest. The death benefit remains intact and goes to a secondary beneficiary upon your death.

Source:  American Council of Life Insurers

Locating a Lost Life Insurance Policy

If a family member dies and you are unable to locate his or her life insurance policies, there is, unfortunately, no national or statewide database of all life insurance policies that you can consult. However, you can try to determine:

  • which insurance company might have issued the policy
  • which agent or broker might have sold or serviced the policy
  • whether the deceased might have had insurance through an employer, union or trade association, or other group to which he/she belonged.

Here are some strategies that might turn up useful information:

Look for insurance-related documents.
Search through files, bank safe deposit boxes, and other storage places to see if there are any insurance-related documents. Also, look through address books to see if the names of any insurance agents or companies are listed. An agent or company who sold the deceased their auto or home insurance may know about the existence of a life insurance policy.

Contact current and prior financial advisors.
Contact current or prior attorneys, accountants, investment advisors, bankers, business insurance agents/brokers and others who might have known about the deceased’s life insurance.

Review life insurance applications.
The application for each policy is attached to that policy. So if you can find any of the deceased’s life insurance policies, look at the applications for them. The application will have a list of all other life insurance policies owned at the time of the application.

Contact previous employers.
Former employers may have a record of a past group policy or policies.

Check bank books and canceled checks.
See if any checks have been made out to life insurance companies over the years.

Check the mail for a year following the death of the policyholder.

Look for premium notices or dividend notices. If a policy has been paid up, there will no notice of premium payments due. However, the company may still send an annual notice regarding the status of the policy or it may pay or send notice of a dividend.

Review the deceased’s income tax returns for the past two years.
Look for interest income from and interest expenses paid to life insurance companies. Life insurance companies pay interest on accumulations on permanent policies and charge interest on policy loans.

Check with the state's unclaimed property office.
If a life insurance company knows that an insured client has died but can’t find the beneficiary, it must turn the death benefit over to the state in which the policy was bought as “unclaimed property.” If you know (or can guess) where the policy was bought, you can contact the state comptroller’s department to see if it has any unclaimed money from life insurance policies belonging to the deceased.

Contact a private service that will search for “lost life insurance.”
Several private companies will, for a fee, contact insurance companies for you to find out if the deceased was insured. This service is often provided through their Web sites.

Do you think the life insurance might have been bought in Canada?
If so, you might contact the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association (phone: 1-800-268-8099; Web site:

Try the MIB database.

There is a database of all applications for individual life insurance that were processed during the last 12 years. There is a $75 charge per search. Many searches are not successful: a random sample of searches found only 1 match in every 4 tries. For information, click here.

Source: Insurance Information Institute

File for Social Security Benefits

Most people think Social Security only pays retirement benefits. Think again.

Social Security provides several key survivor benefits. Make sure to take full advantage of these government programs.

Social Security

Your spouse is considered covered by Social Security if he or she paid in to Social Security for at least 40 quarters. Check with your local Social Security office or call 800-772-1213 to determine if he or she was eligible.

Tip: If the deceased was already receiving benefits, do not deposit any checks received after death before checking with Social Security.

If your spouse was eligible, there are two additional types of possible benefits: (1) a death benefit and (2) survivor's benefits.

One-Time Death Benefit. Social Security pays a one-time death benefit toward burial expenses. Complete the necessary form at your local Social Security office or ask the funeral director to complete the application and apply the payment directly to the funeral bill. This payment is made only to eligible spouses or to a child entitled to survivor's benefits.

Survivor's Benefits for a Spouse or Children. If you are age 60 or older, you may be eligible for survivor's benefits. The amount of any benefits for which you will be eligible before age 65 will be less than any benefits due at age 65 or over. If you are under age 60, you may also be eligible for benefits if:

  • You are a disabled widow, age 50 or older,
  • You care for dependent children under 16 or disabled children.

Note: Children who are under age 18 or are disabled may also be entitled to benefits.

Tip: When applying for Social Security benefits, have available your spouse's birth and death certificates, your marriage certificate, birth certificates of any dependent children, Social Security numbers, and copies of your spouse's most recent federal income tax return.

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File for Veteran's Benefits

If your deceased family member served his or her country, you may qualify for survivor benefits.

Veteran’s benefits can help pay for burial expenses, as well as provide income for survivors. Ask your funeral director for details.

Veterans Benefits

If your spouse was a veteran who received a discharge other than dishonorable, you may be eligible to receive a lump-sum payment of $300 for burial expenses and an allowance of $150 toward a plot in a private cemetery (burial in a national cemetery is free to a veteran, his or her spouse, and dependent children).

Veterans are also eligible for a headstone or grave marker at no charge. The funeral director can help you apply for these benefits or you can contact the regional Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) office.

If your spouse was receiving disability benefits, you and any dependent children may also be entitled to monthly payments. Check with your regional VA office.

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Check into Employer-Provided Benefits

Your loved one may have benefits coming from current and prior employers. Be sure to check with them for details.

Between vacation and sick pay, group life insurance, and other employer-provided benefits, you may have a substantial sum of money coming to you. First stop: the Human Resources departments of the companies involved.

Here's a list of potential death benefit payments.  Be sure to look into all that apply to your situation:

  • If your spouse was employed at the time of death , ask his or her employer about any survivors' benefits.
  • Your spouse may also be due a paycheck for vacation or sick leave.
  • If the employer provided life, health, or accident insurance, you may be entitled to receive payments under these policies.
  • If your spouse belonged to a union or professional organization, find out if this organization offers death benefits for members.
  • If the death was work-related, you may be entitled to worker's compensation benefits.
  • You should contact all past employers, including federal, state, or local governments, to determine whether you are entitled to any payments from a pension plan.
  • If your spouse was already retired and was receiving a pension, check with the employer to determine if you will continue to receive a pension payment, and in what amount. You should get professional guidance as to when and how to take any retirement plan distributions due your spouse or you.

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Find the Will

A will determines how your loved one’s property will be distributed to heirs. Find this document as soon as possible.

It’s important to find the will because without it, property will be distributed according to state intestacy law. This may not be what your loved one wanted.

If your spouse had a valid will, try to find a copy of it. Check with your lawyer, family and anyone who might know where the will is kept. It may be stored in a safe deposit box, which is sealed at the time of death in some states.

Caution: Wills should not be stored in safe deposit boxes.

If your spouse did not have a will, his or her estate will be distributed according to state intestacy law. However, the state intestacy law will not apply to property where the title is in the name of the deceased and another person who has a right of survivorship. This property automatically passes to the co-owner.

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Begin the Probate Process

The last thing you want to deal with after a death is the probate process. But the sooner you do, the sooner your loved one’s estate will be settled.

Many people believe probate is a long and involved process. It can be for very large estates, but in most cases it is fairly straightforward.

Probate is the legal process of paying the deceased's debts and distributing the estate to the rightful heirs. This process usually entails:

  • The appointment of an individual by the court to act as personal representative or executor of the estate; this person is often named in the will. If there is no will, the court appoints a personal representative, usually the spouse.
  • Proving that the will is valid.
  • Informing creditors, heirs, and beneficiaries that the will is to be probated.
  • Disposing of the estate by the personal representative in accordance with the will or state law.

The personal representative named in the will must file a petition with the court after the death. There is a fee for the probate process. Depending on the size and complexity of the probable assets, probating a will may require legal assistance.

Assets that are jointly owned by the deceased and someone else are not subject to probate. Proceeds from a life insurance policy or Individual Retirement Account (IRA) that are paid directly to a beneficiary are also not subject to probate.

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Take Care of Taxes

Death does not excuse you from paying taxes.

If you’re too overwhelmed to handle them, get professional help. Not only must you handle your loved one’s federal and state income taxes, there are a number of other taxes to look into: federal estate taxes, state death taxes, and state inheritance taxes. There are various taxes that will have to be paid. Here is a summary:

Federal Estate Tax. Estate tax is generally only due on estates exceeding the unified credit exemption equivalent, which for 2002-3 is $1,000,000; for 2004-5 is $1,500,000; for 2006-8 is $2,000,000; for 2009 is $3,500,000 (with a scheduled repeal thereafter).

State Death Taxes. State laws vary, but generally any estate which pays a federal estate tax must also file a state estate or death tax form and pay the state death tax. This amount is paid by the estate to the state in which the deceased lived.

State Inheritance Taxes. Again, state requirements vary. Most states charge no inheritance tax. Federal and State Income Taxes. The federal and state income taxes of the deceased are due for the year of death. The taxes are due on the normal filing date of the following year, unless an extension is requested. Tip: Professional guidance is strongly recommended in preparing the tax returns because the filing rules are quite complicated and many tax-saving opportunities might be overlooked by an unqualified preparer.

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Change Ownership/Title of Assets

Your loved one’s property may be yours in theory. But make sure your ownership of these assets is legally valid.

Changing titles can be tedious, but it’s an essential process. Unless you do, you will not officially own your loved one’s assets.

You may need to transfer ownership or change title of property or revise documents after a death. Here are some items that should be checked:

Insurance Policies

If you hold any insurance policies, you may have to change beneficiaries. You may decide that you no longer need to have the same coverage if you do not have dependents, especially in the case of life insurance policies. Auto insurance and home insurance may also need revision.

Your spouse may have medical insurance coverage through work. Under a federal law called COBRA, you and any dependent children may be entitled to continue under your spouse's work-related medical insurance plan for up to 36 months, provided you pay the premiums. On the other hand, you may need to purchase your own medical insurance.

Tip: Check with the employer to see if you can continue with its group health insurance plan, which may be less expensive. Contact the company issuing the policy to make any changes or for more information.


The title of the car owned by your spouse may need to be changed. Contact your state's Department of Motor Vehicles.


If your will provides for property to pass to your spouse, it should be updated. You may want to contact your estate planner for assistance.

Bank Accounts, Stocks, Bonds

If you had a joint bank account with your spouse, it will automatically pass to you. Check with the bank about changing the title and signature card on the account. To change stocks or bond tittles, check with your stockbroker.

If a bank account was held only in the name of your spouse, those assets will have to go through probate. An exception to this would be trust accounts.

Safe Deposit Box

In most states, if the box was rented only in the name of your spouse, it will require a court order to open the box. Only the will or any other materials pertaining to the death can be removed before the will has been probated.

Credit Cards

Credit cards held exclusively in the name of your spouse should be canceled. Any payments due on these credit cards should be paid by the estate.

Your spouse may have used credit cards in both your names or used cards listed only in your name. If so, make the payments due on these cards to keep your own good credit rating. Notify the credit card companies that your spouse is deceased and that the card should list your name only. Some people, particularly widows, may experience difficulties in getting a new card if they do not have their own credit rating.

Tip: When applying for a card, inform the lender about credit cards you shared with your spouse, even if your name was not listed.

General Finances

Debts owed by your spouse will be the responsibility of the estate and should be forwarded to the personal representative or executor who is settling the estate. However, you should pay debts which are jointly owed, particularly mortgage payments and utility or phone bills, in order to keep a good credit rating.

Caution: Do not immediately make permanent significant financial decisions, such as selling your home, moving or changing jobs. You will need some time to consider your situation before you can make these decisions responsibly. If at all possible, do not rush into a decision you might later regret.

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Invest Life Insurance Proceeds

Life insurance benefits can be substantial. The question now: Where to invest the money.

Be careful not to make a rash decision with your life insurance proceeds. Consider leaving the funds with your insurer until you’re in the right frame of mind to make a careful decision.

If you are the beneficiary or your loved one’s policy, you may soon receive a substantial sum of money. What’s most important now is to avoid making major financial decisions until the shock of losing your spouse or family member subsides.

To facilitate sound decision-making, many life insurance companies have established interest-bearing accounts with checking privileges as a policy settlement option. This allows you to keep your money in a safe account until you are able to consider your options. If you need money before then, you can easily write checks on your account.

Once you are in an appropriate state of mind, you should revisit your financial plan, especially your retirement goals and plans, before deciding what to do with the money. Be sure to consult with your financial advisor, attorney, and/or account before committing the funds to one or more savings or investment vehicles.

© 2003 Forefield, Inc.

Manage Your Grief

When you lose a loved one, grief becomes a close companion. Best advice: Accept it and give yourself time to heal before making important decisions.

Everyone grieves differently. Some people express their sorrow openly with family and friends. Other people totally shut down.

As you begin your own journey through sorrow, understand that it’s natural to grieve in your own way—and in your own time.

How long does grief last?

This is probably the most common question asked by the bereaved. Because every griever is a unique personality, there is no single answer to this question.

In most cases, the pain associated with grieving begins to subside considerably in the second and third years following loss. This means that there are more good days than bad ones; that the heavy, depressive feelings in earlier months begin to break up with more hopeful, optimistic feelings replacing them.

Many bereavement authorities believe that most grief adjustments take between two and four years to be completed. Of course, some adjustments are shorter and some are longer, depending upon personality factors and the nature of the relationship with the deceased.

What are the signs of grief?

On the emotional level, the bereaved experience some of the following: disbelief, shock, numbness, denial, sadness, anxiety, guilt, depression, anger, loneliness or frustration.

The physical symptoms of grief can include tightness of the chest or throat, pain in the heart area, panic attacks, dizziness or trembling. Grievers also report sleep disturbance, as in either too much or not enough sleeping.

All of these emotional and physical symptoms fall within the normal range of response to the loss of a loved one.

I feel like I am going crazy. Is this normal?

This is perfectly normal. Indeed, grief can be accurately described as a "crazy" time in one's life.

In her book, Nobody's Child Anymore, Barbara Bartocci writes: "The important thing to realize about mourning is that it's normal to feel slightly crazy. You will forget things. You will drive your car as if on autopilot. You will stare at the papers on your desk and feel paralyzed to get any work done."

Bartocci offers this simple and practical advice: "This might be a good time to carry a small notebook with you. Write down things you need to remember. Don't rely on your memory. Let your boss know why you're not functioning at your usual one-hundred percent. Be patient with yourself. Be as understanding of you during this time as you would like others to be."

Will I ever stop crying?

Even though it may be difficult to believe, the tears will come to an end. This will not happen abruptly but gradually, and even after the intense crying ceases, there may be times when hearing a favorite song or seeing a favored place will bring a moment of sadness along with a tear.

Keep in mind that crying is healthy because it is an emotional and physical release. Writing centuries earlier, Shakespeare had it right: "To weep is to make less the depth of grief."

Do all people grieve in the same way?

While many aspects of grieving are universal—feelings of sadness, numbness, confusion, depression — there is no single prescribed way to grieve.

Grieving is an individual endeavor. Some want to have many people around with whom they can share and explore their feelings. Others prefer to deal with loss more privately.

Most people report that grieving is much like being on an emotional roller coaster. It is worth noting that the "ride" down is usually the prelude to the "ride" up.

Do men and women grieve differently?

The cultural stereotypes of women and men in grief are inaccurate. Generally, they portray women as being expressive with their grief while men are the "strong and silent" type.

The reality is that some men need and want to express and share their feelings, while some women prefer to do their grief work in a more low-key way.

Bereavement styles have less to do with gender and more to do with basic personality traits. Grieve in ways that are most helpful and healing for you.

The holidays are coming. How can I cope with them?

It is not only holidays that are difficult because there is an "empty chair," but also anniversaries, birthdays, Mother's Day, Father's Day and so on.

Here are some effective ways to manage these special days:

  • Plan ahead. How will you spend the day? With whom? Talk about your deceased loved one. This will let others know that you want to hear his/her name and to talk about that person.
  • Establish personal priorities. Decide what you want to do, how you wish to celebrate, and with whom you wish to spend time. Follow your instincts.
  • Express your feelings. If the holidays make you more weepy, then cry. If you feel the need to talk about the loss, then find a good friend who will listen.
  • Value your memories. You loved, and the price of losing a loved one is pain. Cherish the time you had together and value your precious memories, which can never be taken away from you.
  • Reach out to others. Take the focus off yourself and your pain by volunteering to help others.
  • Avoid isolating yourself in grief. Just because you are in pain, do not cut yourself off from others. Stay in touch. Keep communication open with family, friends and colleagues. Accept invitations for social events, even if you do not feel like it.
  • Be patient with yourself. A loss to death inflicts a deep wound but the wound will heal.

I feel very angry. Why is this and what can I do with the anger?

It is not unusual to feel angry. Sometimes the anger is directed at the deceased love one, sometimes toward other family members, sometimes at medical staff, or sometimes toward God.

The anger will subside, but you can take the edge off it through exercise, hard physical activity, such as housework or gardening, and by talking about the angry feelings.

What helps the grieving process?

Even though grievers often feel helpless, there are important steps and actions they can take to make the grieving process flow more smoothly and toward a more rapid resolution.

Here are some ways to cope with the pain of loss:

  • Seek out supportive people. Find a relative, friend, neighbor or spiritual leader who will listen non- judgmentally and provide you with support as you sort your way through grief.
  • Join a support group. Being with others who have had a similar loss is therapeutic. Express your feelings. Do this by confiding in a trusted friend or by writing in a journal. Feelings expressed are often feelings diminished.
  • Take care of your health. Eat balanced, nutritious meals. Rest properly. Find an exercise you enjoy and do it regularly. If you have physical problems, consult with your physician promptly.
  • Find outside help when necessary. If your bereavement feels too heavy for you to bear, find a counselor or therapist trained in grief issues to offer you some guidance.

I have an opportunity to relocate. Would this be good for me?

After a death, the temptation to make changes can be acute. Such changes can include selling off your home, taking a new position, or making a career change.

Unless there is some pressing reason for the change, a good rule is to postpone any major change for at least one year following the loss.

Grief authority Rabbi Earl Grollman advises: "You may be tempted to make a radical change in your life—to sell your house, to move someplace different, to make a fresh start, away from your familiar home and all the painful memories. Wait awhile. The time is not right for major decisions. Your judgment is still uncertain. You are still in horrible pain. Getting used to a new life takes time, thought and patience."

When is mourning finished?

Mourning is successfully completed when the "tasks" of grief are completed. In his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, J. William Worden, Ph.D., identifies the four "tasks" of grieving:

  • To accept the reality of the loss;
  • To experience the pain of the grief;
  • To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing;
  • To withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship.

For those who seek a clear sign that their grieving is coming to completion, Dr. Worden offers this insight: "One benchmark of a completed grief reaction is when the person is able to think of the deceased without pain. There is always a sense of sadness when you think of someone that you have loved and lost, but it is a different kind of sadness — it lacks the wrenching quality it previously had.

One can think of the deceased without physical manifestations such as intense crying or feeling a tightness in the chest. Also, mourning is finished when a person can reinvest his or her emotions back into life and in the living."

© 2007, National Funeral Directors Association

Pre-plan a Funeral

If you planned your loved one’s funeral, you might want to relieve your heirs of that burden. Pre-planning is the answer.

Planning your own funeral is the ultimate gift of love. But shop as carefully for you funeral as you would for any other major purchase.

When the time comes to make funeral arrangements, first decide how much you want to spend for the funeral. Funerals generally range from $4,000 to $6,000, and often much more, depending on location and style. Knowing how much you want to spend will help you to plan the funeral, and to keep costs within reason.

Tip: A cost-saving alternative for some people is a memorial society. Members of these non-profit groups, located in 40 states, have access to less expensive funeral alternatives, and may save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars on funeral arrangements.

If you decide to make advance plans about funeral arrangements, either for yourself or a loved one, you’ll have choices of several types of dispositions and ceremonies. Unless a deceased person has indicated his or her desires, you will have to choose how the remains will be disposed of: burial, entombment, or cremation. You may wish to consult with your religious leader. The type of disposition you choose will affect the cost.

Tip: To help ensure that your own wishes are carried out, you may want to write down your preferences. It also may be helpful to tell relatives and other responsible persons what you have decided.

When pre-planning funeral arrangements, here are some of the services and options you should consider:

  • Filing of the death certificate and provision of copies
  • Moving the deceased’s remains to the funeral home
  • Embalming
  • Preparing the body
  • Whether the service is to be indoors, at graveside, or both
  • Location of the service—at funeral home or at church or temple
  • Content of the service, who will conduct it, and other speakers
  • Music
  • Flowers
  • Pallbearers
  • The hearse to be used and limousines for family members
  • Transportation of the body to the cemetery
  • Whether casket will be open or closed
  • Viewing the body
  • Chairs and tents for guests at the cemetery
  • Guest book to be signed
  • Headstone
  • Obituaries

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File for Social Security Benefits

Most people think Social Security only pays retirement benefits. Think again.

Social Security provides several key survivor benefits. Make sure to take full advantage of these government programs.

Social Security

Your spouse is considered covered by Social Security if he or she paid in to Social Security for at least 40 quarters. Check with your local Social Security office or call 800-772-1213 to determine if he or she was eligible.

Tip: If the deceased was already receiving benefits, do not deposit any checks received after death before checking with Social Security.

If your spouse was eligible, there are two additional types of possible benefits: (1) a death benefit and (2) survivor's benefits.

One-Time Death Benefit. Social Security pays a one-time death benefit toward burial expenses. Complete the necessary form at your local Social Security office or ask the funeral director to complete the application and apply the payment directly to the funeral bill. This payment is made only to eligible spouses or to a child entitled to survivor's benefits.

Survivor's Benefits for a Spouse or Children. If you are age 60 or older, you may be eligible for survivor's benefits. The amount of any benefits for which you will be eligible before age 65 will be less than any benefits due at age 65 or over. If you are under age 60, you may also be eligible for benefits if:

  • You are a disabled widow, age 50 or older,
  • You care for dependent children under 16 or disabled children.

Note: Children who are under age 18 or are disabled may also be entitled to benefits.

Tip: When applying for Social Security benefits, have available your spouse's birth and death certificates, your marriage certificate, birth certificates of any dependent children, Social Security numbers, and copies of your spouse's most recent federal income tax return.

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