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Family Caregiving Doesn't End When the Recipient Dies

These steps can lessen the workload and make the process easier

spinner image sad man going through a loved ones things after they have died
Zinkevych/Getty Images

For many caregivers, it can come as a surprise how much work there is to do after their care partner dies. A familiar sight in my office is a client walking through the door holding a bankers box full of mail and documents belonging to someone who has recently passed away. Almost every time, they drop it on our conference room table and sigh, “I don't know where to start.” After caregiving through illness, infirmity or advancing years, it can be overwhelming to manage another's affairs after death. It can take months, and often years, to complete the process.

Getting organized, prioritizing tasks and learning what you are (and are not) responsible for can reduce a daunting job and help post-life caregivers stay on track. And, there are many steps you can take during your lifetime to ease the burden for those you leave behind.

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Where to start

Remember, caregivers, you have done so much. You deserve time and space to grieve, and a moment to breathe. Give yourself that opportunity so that you are energized for the work ahead.

To begin, you must get educated on your rights and legal obligations, if you are not already aware. If your loved one did his or her estate planning, then you will need to track down the will or trust. A probate attorney can help in retrieving key documents from safe-deposit boxes and inform you of important deadlines you may need to meet. In my home state of Florida, for example, the law requires wills or notices of trust to be deposited with the clerk of court within a certain time frame.

You will need to quickly determine how your care partner wanted his or her bodily remains handled. This information may be contained in a living will, letter of instruction, or last will and testament. Without these documents, you will have to find out whether you have the legal authority to make this decision, or if another person does.

To access any assets, veterans or Social Security benefits, or to receive insurance money, you will need your loved one's death certificate. Issued by the state vital records office, this is the proof that a person has passed away. Expect that it will take three to 10 days to receive it, and order extras (10 is a good number) so that you can provide original copies whenever requested to do so.

For certain accounts — like life insurance or accounts with a payable-on-death recipient listed — all you will need is a death certificate to provide to the insurer or financial institution. For other accounts or assets, you may be asked for letters of administration or letters testamentary. These can only be issued by a court of law and require some procedural steps to obtain.

Take initial steps

In the early days after a care partner's death, consider securing the home and belongings. Lock up the residence if he or she lived independently, change the locks if you've given away keys, make sure vehicles and other valuables are safe, and write or video an inventory of any items that will pass by will or trust. If there is no will or trust, still do an inventory that you can share with your attorney, advisers or expected inheritors. You may consider having your loved one's mail forwarded to your address for a period of time so that it doesn't pile up at his or her home and so you don't miss any important correspondence.

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Obtain the ubiquitous bankers box or storage bin and use it to store paperwork you think you may need. Include separate folders for documents related to assets, liabilities, legal matters and ongoing household and business concerns. Ask your attorney what originals you need to keep, and scan or shred what you can to reduce the pileup of paper.

Remember that grief often puts us in a mental fog. Even filling out simple forms may feel confusing to you. Staying organized will help tremendously during this time.

Prioritize your obligations

When the bills start rolling in, it's common to think we should start writing checks to keep the balances up to date. If you call a creditor to inform them of your loved one's death, there is a strong possibility that they will tell you to pay the bill. This is not always the case. Please know that unless you are a joint account holder or responsible payor for an account, you do not have to pay another person's debts.

As you are managing the closure of accounts, consider what bills would have to be paid to keep things afloat. Prioritize these over others. If your care partner owned a home, consider whether it is to be inherited or sold and whether you should pay the mortgage, keep utilities on, or hire a service to maintain the pool or yard so they don't fall into disrepair.

Consult an attorney or adviser to help you determine what you are and are not responsible to pay for, and the correct way to make payments. Before you pay out of your loved one's assets or out of your own pocket, make sure that it is the legally proper thing to do.

The “business of death” can be a heavy workload or a streamlined process, and you can decide what you will leave for your post-life caregiver.

For current and future care recipients: These are just a few considerations you should think through to allow for efficiency and limited expense in closing up your affairs.

Create your estate planning documents and structure your assets to simplify inheritance. If you own any assets (a house, vehicle, valuable items), run a business, hold insurance policies or even just have a checking account, you should learn how you can pass these assets outside of probate or make it easy for them to be distributed to your chosen beneficiaries.

Also, consider who is going to pay for immediate expenses if you die. Who would pay for the funeral and reception? You may wish to leave an account to be transferred on death to that person so they have immediate access to money.

There is the option to create contracts, operating agreements or trusts that allow for the management of assets or businesses without need for probate. A solid succession plan can prevent years in court and keep the process private.

It may be wise for you to make lifetime gifts or charitable donations; that is, to give away money or accounts to beneficiaries now instead of after you die. Talk to your attorneys and advisers before doing this. There are implications for taxes or public benefits qualifications, so explore how these decisions could be a benefit or detriment to you.

Similarly, plan your final disposition in advance. Leave clear directives about organ and tissue donation; register now if you wish to donate to science or education. Or you can pre-pay for cremation or burial, which may provide a financial benefit to you. At a minimum, settling the funeral arrangements takes the guesswork away for your grieving caregivers.

Finally, prepare a letter of instruction for your caregivers. Make sure to include everything from telling them where you keep documents and keys, to whom to inform about your death, to passwords and PINs for your accounts, and so much more. A well-executed letter of instruction will save your caregivers hours, if not days or weeks, of time. You don't need a lawyer to make this informal document. All you need is a bit of time and forethought to create it.

Just as caring for a loved one is an act of devotion, taking these steps to make your caregiver's burden lighter is an act of love and devotion. You will leave a legacy of ease that will most assuredly be appreciated.

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