Published: 19 August 2013
If you are visiting our beneficiary assistance page, we are so sorry you are here. We know that this is a sad and stressful time for you, but hope this information will help make the task easier. There are a lot of decisions to be made at this time, so be sure to seek the counsel of a trusted advisor to help you with the process. Think about which tasks you can hand off to those who are ready to help.
Where do I start?
There are a few tasks that you must take care of immediately, such as funeral arrangements, and some tasks that can wait until after the funeral. It will be helpful to have these documents at hand to complete a lot of the final arrangements:
- Death certificates (at least a dozen)
- Social Security card
- Marriage certificate (available from the county clerk where the marriage license was issued)
- Birth certificate
- Birth certificates for any children (available at either the state or county public records office where the person was born)
- Insurance policies
- Deeds and titles to property (including real estate, stocks, bonds, bank accounts, deeds, personal property)
- Automobile title and registration papers
- Stock certificates
- Bank passbooks
- Honorable discharge papers for a veteran and/or VA claim number (if you cannot find a copy, contact National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63132-5200)
- Recent income tax forms and W-2 forms
- Loan and installment payment books and contracts
Planning the funeral
If your loved one did not make previous arrangements, then you will need to bring together key family members and find a funeral director who will guide you through this planning process. Some things to consider:
- What were the deceased wishes?
- What can you afford?
- What’s realistic?
- What will help the family the most?
An average cost of a funeral is $5,000 to $8,000. The funeral director may require that a portion of the death benefit from the deceased's life insurance policy be assigned to the funeral home. The beneficiary will be asked to sign an assignment form, which will guarantee that the funeral expense will be paid from the death benefit.
You will need to get at least a dozen certified copies of the death certificate. These are available from the funeral director or the county health department. This legal document is needed to finalize almost every aspect of your loved one’s affairs.
Note: A photocopy is not enough because it lacks the raised registrar’s seal that makes the certificate valid.
You may need a marriage certificate
If so, they are available from the county clerk where the marriage license was issued.
Birth certificates (for the deceased and any dependent children)
Available at either the state or county public records offices where the person was born
Social Security numbers
For the deceased, the spouse, and dependent children
Check with your loved one’s attorney if you don’t know where it is
List of property
A complete list of what the deceased owned, including real estate, stocks, bonds, bank accounts, deeds and personal property
Military discharge papers
If the deceased was a veteran, you will need a copy of the discharge certificate. If you cannot find a copy, contact National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri, 63132-5200. Send it to the attention of the branch of the military in which the deceased served.
Locate recent income tax returns and other important papers
Hopefully, the deceased will have prepared a list of all important documents. If not, look for important documents in safe-deposit boxes, briefcases, strongboxes, home and office desks, lockers, and safes.
Note: Do not discard official-looking documents such as insurance policies, even if you think they have lapsed. The life insurance policy may still be in force, even though the policyowner may have stopped paying the premiums.
Consult your lawyer
When a loved one dies, you will need legal advice regarding probating the deceased’s will, as well as other legal issues that will arise. Probate is the court-supervised process of paying the deceased’s debts and distributing the estate to the beneficiaries. Jointly owned property, property in trust, and assets with a designated beneficiary (life insurance, 401(k), pensions) do not go through the probate process.
If the deceased did not have a will, state laws will determine how the deceased’s property will be distributed. The court will appoint a personal representative to handle the deceased’s affairs.
Contact your loved one’s employer
Do this promptly. Most people are covered by group insurance where they work. Ask about the benefit due you and how to file a claim.
Also ask about pension fund benefits, accrued vacation and sick pay, terminal pay allowances, gratuity payments (tips), service recognition awards, unpaid commissions, disability income, and credit union balances.
Contact life insurance companies
Ask for claim forms and instructions on how to file for life insurance benefits. There is no immediate need for a lump sum payment. You need time to analyze your financial situation and seek advice from your financial advisors.
To avoid making an immediate decision, tell the insurance company that you will need a certain amount now and ask that the remaining amount be held by the company (drawing interest), with the understanding that you can withdraw any amount at any time. Ask about other settlement options that may be available.
Notify Social Security
You must apply for Social Security benefits. They are not paid automatically. If the deceased had paid into Social Security for at least 40 quarters, two types of benefits are possible:
- Death benefit – $255 for burial expenses is available to eligible spouses or dependent children. The survivor can complete the necessary form at the local Social Security office, or the funeral director may complete the application and apply the payment directly to the funeral bill.
- Survivor’s benefit – A variety of benefits are available depending on the age and relationship of survivors. You may be eligible for benefits if you are:
- Spouse, age 60 or older
- Disabled surviving spouse, age 50 or older
- Spouse under 60 who cares for dependent children under 16 or disabled children
- Children of the deceased under the age of 18 or who are disabled.
To make an appointment with the nearest Social Security office, call 1-800-772-1213. To apply for survivor’s benefits, you will need to have birth, death, and marriage certificates, Social Security numbers, and a copy of the deceased’s latest federal income tax return.
Notify the deceased’s health insurance company
Submit outstanding medical claims to the insurer.
Check on credit life insurance
Some loans, mortgages, and credit cards are covered by credit life insurance, which pays off account balances. Call to confirm coverage and inquire how to claim the policy benefits.
Check with the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA)
If the deceased was receiving monthly payments, you will need to notify the DVA of the death. If the deceased was a veteran who received a discharge other than dishonorable, survivors may get $300 toward funeral expenses and $150 for burial costs. Burial in a national cemetery is free to a veteran, spouse, and dependent children. Veterans are also eligible for a headstone or grave marker.
The surviving spouse and children of disabled veterans may also be entitled to a lump sum death benefit, or monthly payments for educational assistance and medical care. The funeral director’s request is usually sufficient to alert the DVA insurance division, which then sends out a claims form. If the funeral director does not contact the DVA, you should contact U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, P.O. Box 42954, Philadelphia, PA 19101, 1-800-669-8477.
Civil Service Commission
Applications for benefits, accompanied by a certified copy of the death certificate, may be filed at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Retirement Operations Center, P.O. Box 45, Boyers, PA 16017-0045, 202-606-0500 or toll free at 1-888-767-6738.
Gather the deceased’s current bills, notify people that were owed money by the deceased and change names on bank accounts, investment accounts and other papers and policies
All property and casualty insurance policies must be updated to reflect changes in ownership. Contact your state motor vehicle department to get a new title for the deceased’s auto. Change beneficiary designations on policies where the deceased was the named beneficiary. Also change beneficiaries on pension and retirement plans.