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Steps to Close Out an Estate After a Loved One Dies

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

Handling a death in the family is never easy. When you lose a spouse, partner, or parent, the grief can be overwhelming. In the midst of that grief, life continues. Arrangements need to be made, things to be taken care of, and you may find yourself suddenly responsible for closing out your loved one’s life.

In recognition of this reality, Peak Wealth Planning has assembled a checklist that you may find useful at such a time.

You don’t need to do it alone. Settling a deceased family member's affairs is not a one-person task. You'll need the help of others – ranging from professionals like lawyers or CPAs who can advise you on financial matters to a network of friends and relatives, to whom you can delegate tasks or lean on for emotional support.
You don’t need to do it alone. Settling a deceased family member's affairs is not a one-person task. You'll need the help of others – ranging from professionals like lawyers or CPAs who can advise you on financial matters to a network of friends and relatives, to whom you can delegate tasks or lean on for emotional support.

Click here to access the PDF Checklist of What to Do When a Loved One Dies.

While the checklist is meant to help you identify the many tasks you’ll need to complete in order to close out your loved one’s life, the remainder of this article will expand on the financial transition of the assets they have left behind.

On a personal note, I’d like to remind you too that you don’t need to do everything right away and all by yourself. Ask for help from other family members if you need it. Or, call your trusted financial or other advisors.

Gather the deceased’s essential documents.

If you are fortunate, your loved one had planned for the inevitable, organizing the essential documents and informing an immediate family member where the documents are located.

  • A will, trust, or other estate documents. If none of these exist, you could face a long legal process when settling the person’s estate.

  • Letter of Instructions. This is an estate planning document that addresses informal details that aren’t included in the will. It’s a letter that provides additional and more personal information regarding an estate. It can be addressed to whomever you choose, but typically, letters of instructions are directed to the executor, family members, or beneficiaries. Some things commonly included in a letter of instruction are the deceased’s funeral wishes, financial information, and location of assets. The letter is personal, so it can also convey the deceased’s life lessons and wishes for their future heirs.

  • A Social Security card, statement, or number. Depending on your relationship to the deceased, you or their relatives may be entitled to benefits. Contact the Social Security Administration.

  • Military discharge papers (DD-214). The DD-214 form is an important document for veterans and their families when it comes to leveraging benefits associated with military service, including funeral-related benefits.

  • Deed to burial property and Copy of funeral prearrangements. If your loved one did Pre-Death Planning, then you may find a plan already with a funeral home and cemetery.

Identify and collect all assets.

  • Bank account and investment statements

  • Life insurance policies

  • Deeds/titles to real estate

  • Car titles or lease agreements

  • Keys for storage space and safety deposit box

  • Any mortgages, bills due, or records of credit card statements

  • Any social media platform information (if applicable)

Last, but not least, look for a computer file or printout with digital account passwords. Prior to their loved one’s passing, some family members may try to centralize all this information or state where it can be found.

Take care of some immediate needs.

  • Contact a funeral home to arrange a viewing, cremation, or burial, in accordance with the wishes of the deceased. Using the deceased’s health care directive or letter of instructions, you’ll be able to answer key questions that best align with the deceased’s final wishes.

  • For veterans, inquire about special arrangements with the Veterans Affairs office.

  • Enlist help for the funeral and plan the reception. Relatives and friends may be needed to serve as pallbearers, create the funeral program, cook meals, care for children or pets, or shop for any items needed for the funeral or the deceased’s household.

  • Contact the county clerk or recorder to request death certificates. Counties usually charge a small fee for each copy issued. Ten to 12 copies may seem excessive, but you may need that many while working with insurance companies and various financial institutions. The attorney, funeral home director, or your financial advisor can help you decide how many of each type are required.

  • If employed, contact the human resources officer at your loved one’s workplace to inform them what has happened. The HR officer might need you to fill out some paperwork pertaining to retirement plans (401k, pension, etc), health benefits, and compensation for unused vacation time.

  • Speaking with an attorney – this can be the lawyer who helped your loved one create a will or estate plan. Should your loved one die without a will, you may want to contact a lawyer for an overview of how the probate process will work and see to what degree you might become liable if your loved one had any outstanding debt obligations.

Address financial, insurance, and credit matters.

  • Work with an accountant or financial advisor to verify whether there are funds (from checking or investments) available to pay bills due while the estate is being settled. If not, contact an attorney or financial advisor for help liquidating funds.

  • Identify all debts, obligations, and liabilities and settle them as appropriate. Creditors may want to know when existing debts will be paid, either by you or your loved one’s estate.

  • Notify creditors. Obtain a current copy of the deceased’s credit report, and use this to help identify all credit card and loan accounts that need to be settled and closed. Notify other creditors, such as utility companies, and consider placing the monthly bills for these debts in your name (or another family member or the executor).

  • Cancel services, subscriptions, and other automatic payments. Identify resources the deceased used. Cable, internet, cell phone, food delivery services, gym membership, country club membership, and other automated services were all part of what made the deceased’s life easier while living. Make plans to cancel these services.

  • Notify credit reporting agencies – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion – of their passing, which can usually be done online, over the phone, or by letter.

  • Call the deceased’s life insurance agent to begin the claims process.

  • Reach out to the deceased’s financial advisor and insurance professionals as well as the person overseeing their workplace retirement plan. These individuals will be able to assist in reviewing the beneficiary claims attached to the investment, retirement plan accounts, and insurance policies. Also, ask these professionals about the possible tax implications from inheriting these assets.

  • Prepare to pay state and federal taxes for your loved one for the year of their death.

  • Stop health insurance.

  • If your loved one owned a small business or professional practice, a discussion with business partners (and clients) may be necessary as well as a consultation with the attorney who advised that business. Hopefully, your loved one had a business succession plan in place.

Look after your future.

Working through several of these issues may help bring closure to your loved one’s estate and provide mental space for you to celebrate his or her life.

  • Will you be receiving an inheritance? When you are ready to move forward, if you are receiving an inheritance, consult with a financial planner or other trusted advisor to determine how property or investments may impact your future. Consult with an estate attorney to see if wills and trusts need to be updated. If your loved one was a trustee, the trust documents may need to be re-written.

  • Do you have an estate plan in place? While no one really wants to think about these matters, spending the time to work through the necessary steps in advance and putting a plan in place today can minimize decision-making burdens later. Peak Wealth Planning can help you to craft a thoughtful and thorough estate plan, so your family can transition to life without you more easily.

Final thought.

Has it been more than 5 years since you updated your estate plan? Would you like to bulletproof your wealth for the next generation? If you have more than $2 million saved and need help from a wealth manager, the Peak Wealth Planning team can assist.

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About the Author

Peter Newman is a Chartered Financial Advisor (CFA) and president of Peak Wealth Planning. He works with individuals nationwide that have accumulated wealth through company stock, ESOP shares, real estate, or running a business. Peter applies his unique background to help clients achieve their specific goals and enjoy peace of mind.

Peak Wealth Planning provides concierge services to meet your wealth management needs. Services include: financial planning, investment management, esop diversification, retirement income, insurance, and estate planning advice. Peak Wealth Planning is a fee-based financial advisor based in Champaign, Illinois, and Fraser, Colorado.


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