A reader: I recently learned my brother has terminal cancer. He is in no condition to deal with business matters. He is not married and has no children, so everything is left to me. I don’t know how to take care of his personal business. He is not a wealthy man, but he does own a house and has some savings. I saw a bunch of flyers in the hospital waiting room for estate planning, but I don’t have a clue who to call.
Action Line: I know it must be especially difficult to deal with a death that you know is coming, but you are wise to start thinking about it now.
If your brother is still of sound mind and doesn’t have an attorney, you should speak with one about a will and estate planning. As always, check the attorney or estate planner’s reliability report with the BBB.
Every situation is different, so I am just going to offer some basic advice. You should always contact your attorney and bank for specifics regarding your brother’s estate.
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The first thing to do is to contact the deceased’s employer (if any). Ask about any outstanding compensation due. Find out whether dependents (if any) are still eligible for benefits and whether there is a life insurance policy through the company.
Make arrangements with the bank, credit union or other financial institutions to put a hold on accounts and only process outstanding checks or payments. Then close the accounts.
Notify credit card companies and pay off any balances. Helpful information on this can be found by typing in ‘deceased card holder’ at http://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/credit-card-debt-death-1282.php
You will also need to notify the Social Security Administration. You can go to http://www.ssa.gov and search for information by typing in ‘deceased’ or you can call (800) 772-1213, but be prepared for a wait. Besides reporting the death, find out if survivors are entitled to any further benefits.
In the event that multiple insurance companies are involved, you need to notify them that the policy holder is deceased and cancel home, car and health policies. You will also need to initiate a claim for any life insurance policies. If the deceased is a veteran, you will need to notify the Veteran’s Administration.
Stop telephone, cell phone, Internet and cable services. You should also put a change of address form in with the post office, so you can receive any bills, magazines or other materials and packages that may be enroute to the deceased’s home. There is no need to let magazine companies know about the death. You can simply send them a notice asking them to cancel the subscription, either online, by phone or snail mail. If mail is being sent to your address, the least obvious way to handle this is to wait until the subscription expires and you receive a renewal invoice. Simply mark “cancel” on the invoice and return it.
Don’t forget to close any email or social networking accounts. If you can access his address books, you may wish to notify any friends who may not have been in contact with your brother recently. Be very careful to only notify people you know are actual friends of your brother to avoid sharing personal information with casual Internet acquaintances.
If there is a home involved and it isn’t sold immediately, be sure to maintain regular yard maintenance so the home doesn’t appear to be empty. Using lights on revolving timers also helps retain a “lived in” look to discourage would-be intruders.
Health and Elder Law Programs (H.E.L.P.), a California nonprofit that provides information and education to older adults, has a checklist of “Things to Do When a Person Dies” that includes contacting Social Security as well as other essential tasks.