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.
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.