What Gets Left Behind: Helping Clients Handle a Loved One’s Estate

As a financial advisor, you are witness to some of the best moments of your clients’ lives – but you’re also there for some of their lowest. This is especially true when a client dies, leaving behind a spouse or children who must wrap up their loved one’s affairs while grappling with their loss.

After a loved one dies, most of us are left with one question: What do I need to do now? The thought of all the work involved with tackling all the tasks that must now be accomplished can be overwhelming and cause a sense of distress for the deceased’s heirs.

Fortunately, you have the great privilege of being in a position to truly help the family when they need it most. You can be a resource as they navigate the ins and outs of handling the financial side of an estate, helping them identify who needs to be contacted, which forms need to be completed and what information needs to be gathered. To help you better serve your client, here are some of the things they’ll need to do and think about as they handle their loved one’s estate.

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Obtain Official Documentation

The very first thing to do is request death certificates. Death certificates can be obtained through the funeral director, or you can also order them from the vital statistics office in the state where the death occurred. It’s recommended to request 10-20 official copies; most companies will require a death certificate before closing an account, transferring assets or releasing benefits. Companies and professionals who will need a copy of the death certificate often include:

  • Life insurance companies
  • Banks
  • Financial advisors
  • Attorneys
  • Pension and/or 401(k) Administrators
  • Investment companies
  • Social Security Administration
  • Medicare Prescription and Medigap insurance providers
  • Lenders (mortgage, car, student loans, etc.)

Estate executors may also need Letters Testamentary from the probate court, showing that they have authority to act on behalf of the estate. This will be needed to conduct financial business or sell or transfer large assets such as a car or home. Executors should request several copies of this document.

Apply for Benefits

If the deceased was taking Social Security benefits, the survivor should contact the Social Security office to start the process of applying for survivor benefits. They can request the necessary forms by calling 800.772.1213 or visiting the Social Security website at www.ssa.gov.

The survivor will need to contact the life insurance company to start the process of payment to beneficiaries. They should also reach out to pension and 401(k) administrators to find out what benefits are available.

Cancel or Modify Insurance Policies

The Social Security office should notify Medicare of the death. However, if the deceased received benefits for a Medicare prescription plan (Part D) or a Medicare Advantage or Medigap plan, they will need to be notified directly.

Insurance policies need to be canceled or modified, depending on the deceased’s marital status. This might include car insurance, homeowner’s insurance, and insurance on any other assets. If the deceased was married at the time of death and they carried the health insurance, the survivor should contact the employer or health insurance company to find out options for continuing or obtaining new coverage.

Update or Close Accounts

Jointly held accounts – including investments and bank accounts – will need to be retitled to reflect the new ownership. The survivor should contact the investment firm or bank to obtain the appropriate paperwork. The survivor will also need to contact credit card companies to cancel the card or remove the deceased as an authorized user.

Notifying credit reporting agencies is a smart move to prevent identity theft of the deceased. Copies of the death certificate should be sent to the three big credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Don’t Forget Taxes

Taxes will be owed for the year in which the death occurred. The survivor should contact a tax accountant to assist with preparing a return for both the individual and the estate.

Do Some Housekeeping

Unfortunately, life marches on – and the mail (and bills) keep coming. If the deceased lived alone, the survivor should complete a mail forwarding request, reducing the possibility of missing an important bill. Autopayments need to be canceled or changed to avoid overdrafts on the deceased’s bank account.

Utilities may need to be canceled or moved to the survivor’s name. These might include electric, gas, trash and water. Also, entertainment or leisure-related accounts might need cancellation. A review of the deceased’s checking account could reveal what accounts they might have had. These could include:

  • Internet
  • Cable
  • Mobile phone
  • Subscription accounts (Netflix, Hulu, Audible, etc.)
  • Memberships (Country club, gym)

One task that often gets overlooked: canceling the deceased’s driver’s license. This is also a good step for preventing possible identity theft. Each state has a different procedure, so visit your local DMV or go to their website for instructions on how to complete this task.

Revise Survivor Accounts

This is also a good time for survivors to update their own life insurance policies and retirement accounts to reflect new beneficiaries. Bank accounts, as well, may have a “payable on death” designation that needs to be modified.

The death of a client reminds us that financial advising is truly about building relationships, providing guidance to your clients in the good times and the bad. If you have a client that is handling the affairs of a deceased loved one, download this checklist as a resource for both you and the survivor.



This content is provided for informational purposes only. The third-party information and opinions contained herein, have been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed by AE Wealth Management. At all times it must be clear to individuals that the advisory firm does not provide legal advice. All individuals should be encouraged to seek the guidance of a qualified legal professional.


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