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Turning the Page: Dealing with Death

Regrettably, 2018 has been marred with too many client deaths.  And just recently, Michelle lost her father much too soon.  As we age, death becomes more visible on our horizons.  Our emotional balance sheets start to run relationship deficits as loved ones are not simply replaced.  It’s easy to become sentimental, melancholy and even cynical.  The losses never really go away.

While death’s emotional toll can be heavy, (78% of widows described becoming a widow as their single most difficult life experience) the financial burdens can be just as draining.  Dealing with a messy, complicated and disjointed estate is the last thing heirs want.  Unfortunately, being in the personal financial service profession, we see too much of this.  Let us share our experiences.  There are 2 chapters to death preparation: while living and post mortem.  Let’s consider each.


  • If a family member has fallen ill, initiate a family discussion.  Get everyone up to speed & delegate potential responsibilities.  Education helps understanding & can mentally prepare everyone for the road ahead.

  • Housing concerns may develop. Who can care for the loved one should the situation continue to deteriorate.

  • Have burial and final preparations been made?  If a veteran is ill, consider reaching out to Veteran Affairs (800) 827-1000 for special burial services.

  • Review & update Trust and Will documents.  Confirm the loved one’s final intentions.

  • Has a Power of Attorney (POA) been appointed? Healthcare POA?[i]

  • Double check titling of accounts. We advocate a Transfer on Death (TOD) designation as it forgoes probate and immediately transfers assets to beneficiaries.

  • Compile an inventory of all assets: investments, bank accounts, insurance policies, collectables, real estate.

  • Double check all insurance and retirement account beneficiaries.  Consider contingent beneficiaries as well.  Confirm the address, DOB, SS# are all accurate.  Make sure trusts are not named beneficiaries of IRA’s.

Post Mortem

  • Get at least 10 death certificates.  Some institutions require an original for proof of death but we’re seeing copies are more frequently recognized. They are usually $15-20 apiece so no need to get any more than necessary.

  • Get your documents organized and prioritized.  It’s going to seem daunting and even overwhelming.   Most of the stuff isn’t urgent.  We advocate cashing in insurance policies first for liquidity. Pace yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  • Contact a CPA well versed in estate planning.[ii]

  • Notify the Social Security office of the death (800) 772-1213.[iii] Survivor benefits must be filed in person.

  • Cancel the decedent’s driver’s license, individual credit cards, insurance policies and notify credit reporting agencies to avoid potential identity theft.

  • Death puts on CD’s have become more prevalent.  Check to see if this is applicable.

  • Retitle accounts.  Joint tenant accounts will usually have to be closed and the assets moved to a new, individual account.  There will also be a stepped-up cost basis from 6 months after date of death.

  • Pay special attention to IRA’s.  For spousal beneficiaries, you can simply roll them into your own. Non-spouses need to set up a specifically titled Inherited IRA account.

  • Update your beneficiaries.

After we lose a loved one, it’s as if our minds go into a grieving fog.  The event still hasn’t sunk in and doesn’t even seem possible.  Our daily focus becomes scattered and forgetfulness is common.  This can last for weeks, months or longer.  That is why we advocate taking a step back and having ample quiet time to collect our thoughts to begin the healing process.

Far too often we see just the opposite:  the survivor wants to tackle all tasks immediately.  They want to de-clutter the house, re-arrange their assets and make major financial decisions. 4 years after Jim Sr’s passing, my mom is still trying to peddle me his loud pink, double knit, Sansabelt slacks.  I’d might be willing to cave if it wasn’t for the size 42 waist.  Perhaps staying busy distracts us from sorrow.

Lastly, an anecdotal observation: are pets aware of our distress?[iv]  In the week’s leading up to Michelle’s dad passing, her feral cat, Catherine, wouldn’t leave her side.  She had an incessant need to purr & cuddle with Michelle.  It seemed to sooth her sadness and afforded some comfort.   Her cuteness was temporary. Catherine is now back to her old self: neurotic, self-absorbed & hungry.  But, when it really mattered, she truly earned her keep.   

Fiscal Fitness is a publication of Houlihan Asset Management, LLC for the benefit of its clients and friends.     Houlihan Asset Management.  Wealth Counseling/Asset Management. Copyright 2018


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