Chapter 4: Business Matters
It is difficult to make decisions or even know where to start after the death of someone close to you. When you are grieving, it is hard to think clearly. So, here is a list of some of the business matters that you may have to deal with in the days ahead.
Gather Needed Documents
Make a file containing all of the documents you might need when filing for claims of any kind. You may already have these or you may need to get them from other sources. Having the documents all in one file makes it easier for you to handle business without extra stress.
- Death certificates: Available from your funeral director or county health department. Purchase at least a dozen certified copies of the death certificate. Most companies will want a certified copy, but use a photocopy when you can to save money
- Deceased's Social Security number
- Social Security numbers for spouse and minor children
- Certified birth certificates or adoption papers for each family member
- Citizenship papers
- Marriage license/certificate and separation or divorce records. These licenses are available from the county clerk where the marriage/separation/divorce license was issued.
- Military service or 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, MO 63132-5200 (Send it to the attention of the branch in which the deceased served).
- Insurance policies
- Will or trust documents: The lawyer who wrote the will may have it. Or, it may be with the personal belongings of the deceased or in a safe deposit box. Some banks have special procedures before letting anyone into the safe deposit box.
- Bank/financial institution records including safe deposit box information
- Property records: A complete list of what the deceased owned including real estate, stocks, bonds, bank accounts, deeds (including vehicle registration), and personal property.
- Credit card or other debt information
- Investment records
- Employment and employee benefit (pension plan) records
- Tax returns: If you cannot locate a copy of the most recent income tax return, you need to fill out IRS Form 4506. You will need to attach documentation that you are authorized to act on behalf of the deceased, such as letters from the probate court.
You may or may not know which companies or individuals the deceased used for various services. If you do know, you might be able to get needed information with a phone call. Be prepared, however, to make an appointment for a personal visit. On the other hand, if you don't know where to begin, search through personal and business papers (canceled checks, letters, and address book) for names of people to contact.
Contact the deceased's attorney regarding any estate planning documents. This will likely include a will and letter of instructions, if they exist. These documents may contain information that will be necessary to carry out the wishes of the deceased. An attorney also can answer any questions you have about probate. If appropriate, check to see if you need to change your own will.
Contact financial institution officer/investment adviser
Check to see how the names are listed on accounts and if you will be able to get money from them. In some states, joint bank accounts are automatically frozen upon the death of one spouse. If you cannot, see if you can transfer the accounts in your name or contact an attorney for help.
Contact insurance agent(s)
File any claims to receive death benefits from life insurance. Notify the insurance companies (in writing) that insured your spouse of his or her death. Each company will need a statement of claim and a death certificate before the surviving spouse can receive benefits. Keep copies of all correspondence
Check on the status of your own health insurance. This is important if you were covered through a family plan or the deceased's employer. Review other coverage (auto, property) for needed changes.
If you don't know with which companies the deceased held policies, you can contact a service that will search all policies and send you information. You will need to send a self-addressed, stamped business-size envelope along with a letter requesting information to:
Policy Search Service
American Council of Life Insurance
1001 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20004
Request additional certified death certificates from the recorder at the courthouse. This is in addition to those furnished through the funeral director. A certified (has official stamp on it) certificate is usually required when filing claims. If you need certified copies of birth certificates or marriage licenses, these are also available from the recorder where the events occurred. Ask your attorney for advice about changing property ownership and registrations (auto, house, farm, etc.). This would be handled by the recorder at the courthouse.
Contact deceased's employer
Ask about receiving the final paycheck and any payment for accrued vacation and/or sick leave. Find out what you need to do to get benefits from a pension plan, life insurance, accident insurance, 401(k), or company stock benefits etc. If you have health insurance through the deceased's employer, ask about policy continuation and costs. Discuss this with the employer and your insurance agent.
Contact Social Security Administration representative
Social Security benefits are not automatically paid out after a death; you must apply for them. Contact a Social Security Administration representative to see what benefits are available. These might include a small lump-sum death benefit and survivor benefits for spouse and/or children
Advise All Creditors
Advise all creditors in writing including issuers of credit cards, that your spouse has died. If you have any loans, find out if they are insured.
Contact Accountant/Tax Attorney
Find out what needs to be done to file tax returns that may include both federal and state returns. The accountant also can help you with matters relating to estate taxes. Federal law requires that an estate tax return be filed within nine months of the death in many cases. Since tax laws are constantly being revised, it is important to seek out expert advice to determine your full tax liability.
With federal estate and inheritance tax rates high, a small business owner's death and the resulting estate tax liability can create additional problems for the business, ranging from negative cash flow to insolvency. Although business owners should complete effective estate planning before their deaths, certain postmortem measures are available to reduce or eliminate federal estate taxes, even for a client who did no estate planning during his or her life or one whose planning was inadequate or in error. Work with your tax accountant/attorney to explore if you can preserve family wealth by saving estate taxes and facilitate business continuity.
In addition, you tax attorney can also help you through probate. Probate is the court-supervised process of paying the deceased's debts and distributing the estate to the rightful beneficiaries. Jointly owned property, property in trust, and assets with a designated beneficiary (life insurance, 401(k), and pensions) do not go through the probate process. If the deceased did not have a will, state law will determine how the deceased's assets and property will be distributed to family members. The court will appoint a personal representative or the person named in the will as executor to manage the deceased's affairs.
Contact business services
Your deceased spouse may have the utilities and other services in their name. You may need to transfer the accounts in your name, if you plan to love in the same place. In addition, it allows you to decide if you want to cancel any of these services. Service providers to contact include:
- Phone and Wireless service provider
- Gas Company
- Electric Utility
- Water Company
- Garbage Services
- TV Cable service provider
- Internet Service Provider
- Home intruder alarm provider
Keep in Mind
Remember that the people you are contacting are not emotionally involved in your business. They might not always seem to be sensitive to your needs. It may help you to have a family member or friend go to the appointments with you.