Written by Alua Arthur from Going with Grace

If a loved one has recently died, there is no doubt that this is a very tumultuous and emotional time.  Perhaps you are experiencing a mix of sadness, anger and frustration, or even relief that your loved one is no longer in pain or suffering.  All of your feelings are valid and completely normal.

You’re probably also becoming aware of the number of tasks necessary to close out the affairs of your loved one’s life. After you’ve handled the burial or cremation services, you’re likely thinking about where to begin the rest.  Managing grief while making sure that the bills are paid on time, cleaning out a house or apartment, negotiating with insurance companies, sending copies of the death certificate to all the right places and getting ready to settle the estate can be overwhelming and confusing. Here are the top 3 mistakes to avoid when completing the affairs of your loved one’s life. 

1. Relying solely on the funeral home to contact Social Security

Funeral homes are tremendously helpful after a death.  Among the many services available, the funeral director will likely offer to make a call to the Social Security Administration on your behalf which will get the ball rolling.  However, funeral homes are typically not armed with all of the information to see if there are other benefits you could receive as a result of your loved one’s death. Social Security can be an important source of income and benefits even after your loved one has died.  Be advised, however, that if your loved one was already receiving Social Security benefits, you will have to return any benefit checks paid in the month that s/he died and any later months.  Continuing to cash the checks is fraud. 

Fortunately, there are other benefits that could be available to you and your family after a death.  How much you will receive depends in large part on how long your loved one worked, how long s/he paid into the system, your age, and your relationship to the deceased.  Surviving spouses may be entitled to a $255 lump sum payment and the full benefits at full retirement age, or reduced benefits as early as age 60.  Even divorced spouses (provided you were married for at least 10 years) can be entitled to cash benefits.  Unmarried children of the deceased can also get benefits, and parents of the deceased are also eligible if they depended on the income of the worker.  Even a stepchild, grandchild, stepgrandchild, or adopted child can receive benefits under certain circumstances. Make the call yourself and make the call early. Call toll-free at 1-800-772-1213 (for the deaf or hard of hearing, call the TTY number, 1-800-325-0778).  You can also apply for benefits online.

2. Waiting to contact credit reporting agencies

While identity theft is probably the last thing on your mind when a loved one dies, it should be one of the first.  Once someone dies it can take 3-6 months for the credit bureaus to be notified through ordinary means—through the funeral home and then Social Security. Eager criminals prey on grieving and vulnerable families and use information in obituaries and anywhere else they can get it to steal identities and open accounts. Identity theft is not just a problem for the living, but also for the deceased. You should notify the major 3 credit reporting agencies as soon as possible after a death to minimize the chances of your loved one’s identity being stolen.  You will need a certified copy of the death certificate to complete this.  When you send it in, make sure that you send it certified return receipt requested so you can ensure that it has been received. Here is their contact information:

A helpful additional step is to request your loved one’s credit report. Request another copy of the credit report in two months and again six months later to ensure that no new accounts have been opened.   While neither the family members or the estate will be liable for charges after the date of death, bill collectors are likely to call and you can bet that a lot of time and anguish can be spent filling out paperwork to reverse charges.  Additionally, making a list of accounts to close is often the most frustrating part of settling the affairs of a life and you can streamline this process by seeing which accounts are already connected to your loved one’s credit along with contact phone numbers. You can get valuable information about student loans, credit cards, and auto loans to name a few.  You could save you valuable time and headache by notifying the credit reporting agencies early and requesting a credit report.

3. Handling it all yourself

Perhaps the greatest mistake people make when starting to settle the affairs of a loved one’s life is by trying to do it alone.  The two tasks listed above can be handled quite simply, but the amount of responsibilities and tasks as time goes on can quickly get overwhelming, especially in the face of grief.  Since grief can feel very isolating, it is important to integrate as many people into the process as possible. Remember the people who told you that they were available to you?  Now is time to make a list of those trustworthy and responsible people who can support you through this process. 

While you build your team, keep in mind their particular talents and skills. Perhaps your nephew is great with internet research and can track down online accounts and your neighbor has a pickup truck and can move unneeded furniture.  Share in the responsibilities of this time and keep track of who is doing what so things do not get overlooked. It is also important to make sure that only certain people have access to the sensitive information, like Social Security numbers. 

Additionally, remember that there is professional help available for these tasks. Going with Grace provides guidance through the practical, legal, and emotional needs while contemplating the end of life and after death.  They are a team of compassionate, reliable, and organized planners and attorneys, using legal and death midwifery training to support families in these tasks to ease the transition and lessen the unnecessarily painful process of completing the affairs of a loved one’s life.

The process of closing out the affairs of a loved one’s life can take months or even years, rife with many pitfalls.  Its important to move methodically but at a pace which does not overwhelm you and your support team.  You may not be able to get away from your responsibilities but please make time to take care of yourself as well.  It is not simple, but by following the tips outlined here and seeking professional support, you can avoid costly mistakes which could significantly complicate the process. All the best to you. 

About the Author:
Going with Grace provides guidance through the practical, legal, and emotional needs while contemplating the end of life and after death.  We are a team of compassionate, reliable, and organized planners and attorneys committed to supporting families during this time, thereby creating peace of mind.  There are unlimited resources to help people cope with death of a loved one, beyond grief counseling.  Using our legal and death midwifery training, we support families in these tasks to ease the transition and lessen the unnecessarily painful process of completing the affairs of a loved one’s life.  Life and lives can be so complicated.  We can help simplify it for you.