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Three Things to Do When a Parent Dies

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Written by Troy Werner

Troy Werner has been an indispensable asset to The Werner Law Firm since joining in 2009, providing exceptional legal service to its clients.

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POSTED ON: February 19, 2019

The death of a parent can be one of the most traumatic moments of a person’s life, whether it happens in one’s childhood or adult years. It may occur suddenly, or after a long illness, even after the parent no longer holds any memory of who the child is. The complexity of parent-child relationships can […]

The death of a parent can be one of the most traumatic moments of a person’s life, whether it happens in one’s childhood or adult years. It may occur suddenly, or after a long illness, even after the parent no longer holds any memory of who the child is. The complexity of parent-child relationships can also enter into this emotional time:  In addition to grief, the child can feel abandonment, fear, anger, and even relief. When a parent dies, it could require years of emotional processing in addition to the avalanche of legal issues often left in its wake. The avalanche of paperwork you are about to face can feel overwhelming.

This difficult and stressful time can be made easier with pre-planning for the future. Speaking with your mother or father while he or she is healthy and lucid is a good way to open the process and learn about his or her wishes. While the conversation can be painful, it’s necessary and often informative. Including a legal professional in this process is often helpful: A lawyer can act as a disinterested party who can also answer questions from both parent and child.

Legal representation can also be reassuring when a parent dies, especially if he or she has not made any final arrangements. Attempting to navigate alone the specifics and trying to make major decisions while working through recent shock and grief can make a trying time even worse. No matter how much estate planning has taken place prior to when a parent dies, it can be helpful to have a list of action items to guide you in these trying moments.

1.) Ensure Information & Property Are Secure

If possible, secure sentimental and valuable items in another location. Morbid and inhuman as it sounds, sometimes thieves target families who have suffered a loss. Unscrupulous people scour newspapers for obituaries or lurk about local churches and places of worship to learn the names of those who have passed away.

Some thieves physically break into homes, gambling that either the house is empty or immediate family is away making arrangements. They hope that in the flurry of grief and activity, family members may have forgotten to lock doors, close windows, or set alarm systems. Thieves then ransack the house for valuables on the assumption that some family members who have arrived from out of town might not even know what is missing. Others snatch cars, boats, or even mobility equipment.

While the cancellation of some subscriptions services requires a death certificate, some measures can be taken immediately.To help keep the property look lived-in and cared for, it’s best to place a temporary hold on mail and speak to the subscription department of newspapers and magazines. Ask trusted neighbors or nearby friends and family members to either gather or alert you to deliveries. Others can help alert you to unusual activity taking place at the residence.

Other criminals specialize in identity theft. It’s important to gather such vital and valuable documents such as passports, driver’s licenses, social security cards, and birth certificates. These are best placed in a safe deposit box to keep them secure. If your parent was active online, be sure to remove written passwords and relocate such equipment as computers and cell phones. Thieves may use these to log into bank or investment accounts.

2.) Obtain Multiple Copies of the Death Certificate

It’s tough to think about such details which signify the finality of your parent’s death, but heirs must have access to not just one, but several copies of a death certificate. In order to close bank accounts, collect insurance benefits, alert federal and state benefit agencies, negotiate with creditors, or even cancel a cell phone data contract, an official death certificate is required. Since they aren’t often returned, or may take several weeks for a return, it is best to have more than one on hand. Experts suggest at least ten to meet the most immediate needs.

This isn’t as simple as running the original through a copier or scanning the original. The copies must be certified, which means that they bear the official seal of the government agency which has issued them. Depending on where you live, you can obtain copies from one of several agencies, including the vital statistics unit, public health department, or the office of the city clerk. These certified copies must in turn be kept in a safe location along with your parent’s other important documents, such as a last will and testament, life insurance policies, and stock certificates.

3.) Gather Pertinent Paperwork

Although gathering even just the documents mentioned so far might seem exhausting, there’s still more to have at hand. This paperwork usually pertains to the execution of your parent’s will.

Dealing with your parent’s estate can take weeks or months. Solid pre-planning can shorten the amount of time spent distributing your parent’s assets. However, even if this documentation is in order, the will is valid, the funeral pre-paid, and the insurance current, it’s often necessary to satisfy several legal requirements before fully settling the matter. For example, if your parent wanted a property sold and the proceeds from it divided among family members, deeds must be located, a realtor contacted, and assessments undertaken. All of this requires time, paperwork, and patience.

Miscellaneous important documents to gather include the last two year’s tax returns. While it’s obvious that life insurance policies should be located and processed, it’s also imperative to find statements and contact information regarding home and auto insurance, as these policies should be cancelled as soon as possible so as to avoid the necessity of paying for unused coverage.

Investment accounts should also be explored. This includes such retirement accounts as 401k plans and pensions. Mutual funds, stocks, IRA’s, and certificates of deposit should also be located, particularly if enumerated in the last will and testament. If a mortgage is yet unpaid, the lending company should be contacted to alert it to a shift in ownership.

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