In an unfortunate turn of events, my mother passed away when I was 20 years old. It was very sudden, and to be quite honest, we still don’t have a definitive cause of death. The last close family member I knew who passed away died when I was still in middle school, so I was a lot less involved in handling things. The hardest part of this personal disaster is that we had just stopped making payments on a supplemental life insurance policy for my mother, and the only policy we had was the one through my father’s work. Of course, everyone knows that funerals are expensive, but that’s not the only thing that comes into play when someone dies. The funeral marks a social/religious event for family, friends, and supporters of those grieving, but the financial burden doesn’t end there. Here is what I learned about money when my mother passed away:
1. Grief makes handling the passing of a relative so much harder.
Going through their accounts, their files, and their passion projects are all very difficult things. Having to look through every item they spent money on, especially if they had an individual bank account (not one joint with a spouse), is not a fun time. We spent months going through her finances, trying to decipher what needed to be canceled, what would go away, etc. We had access to her email because it was hooked up to her iPad, but we couldn’t access her actual accounts.
These things take time and are very emotionally stressful, so compiling a list of things that need to be canceled, things that have balances on them, and things that are settled up is very helpful. All in all, if the executor of their estate, which in this case was my father, needs help with anything involving the deceased’s finances, it’s best if you can assist them, and make their job as easy as possible. Losing someone close to you is difficult enough even before adding in the financial burden.
2. Different accounts require different things in order to be canceled.
This was one of the strangest things I had to deal with. The phone bill required a copy of the death certificate, and Skype required a copy of the death certificate and a decent amount of back and forth. iTunes, because she still had $15 on her account and dozens of songs and movies, wanted an Affidavit from a judge — something we did not get — and just settled with a $15 gift card and some song/app credits. You take what you can get. I would honestly recommend that you have a scanned copy of the death certificate. Lots of places will let you email something in. I made countless calls to Facebook games — my mother was an avid Farmville player — and other monthly subscription services that needed to be canceled, and having a digital copy of the certificate saved me a lot of headache.
3. Individual debt gets a little weird.
My mother had a few store credit cards in her name, all with low balances, as well as a Verizon Wireless bill in her name that was not joint with my father’s. She had no estate, next to no income, and no retirement, so there wasn’t anything to pay those bills. Because she was only 48, she was too young for my father to continue getting her disability payments. The good thing is that because these accounts were in her name, and her name alone, my father was able to not pay them. Whether or not you’re responsible for your spouse’s individual debt depends on what state you live in, as I understand it, though I’m not an actual expert, just someone who has been through this.
4. When in doubt, consult a lawyer.
If whomever passed away had a lot of different financial things going on (multiple bank accounts, multiple homes, multiple marriages, etc.), a lawyer can be very helpful. The more complicated it is, the more a lawyer can help. Luckily for us, my mother’s finances were really straightforward; she was unemployed, and she didn’t have anything invested or in savings that wasn’t joint with my father, so it was fairly easy, except trying to cancel the dozens of things she signed up for without knowing that things got charged on a monthly or yearly basis.
5. Credit card offers won’t stop.
My mother has been dead for a little over two years now, and we still get credit card offers in the mail addressed to her, despite having contacted the companies to ask them to stop sending these. Sometimes we get anywhere between two and five in a month, and sometimes we get that many in a week. I’m halfway tempted to fill out an application for her, but apparently that’s illegal.
When someone dies, your entire life can feel like it is going up in flames, but the more control you have with what else is going on in your life, the easier it is to take care of yourself in an emotional situation.
Taryn Goodge is a recent college grad working for a commercial credit bureau. She is very good at giving financial advice, not so good at following it.
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