Who Should Receive Notification when the Estate Owner Dies?

As executor, you may feel that your job is primarily to write letters because you need to notify seemingly everyone and their uncle of the decedent’s death. Some entities and individuals may be more important than others, but you should notify them all as soon as possible.

You can save yourself some time by creating your own version of a form letter that can be modified easily for each recipient. Keep it on your computer’s desktop and revise it as needed. You can keep saved electronic copies of each letter sent in a folder on your desktop so you can easily identify whom you’ve sent letters to. Make sure that you organize all this correspondence.

Make sure that you contact the following entities and individuals to inform them of the decedent’s death:

  • The decedent’s attorney, accountant, and so on: At your earliest convenience, contact the decedent’s attorney, accountant, investment advisor, insurance agent, and any other professional you’re aware of. Each may have valuable information that can save you hours of searching for the decedent’s estate-plan documents, copies of tax returns, asset information, and personal information.

    The surviving spouse and other family members will likely be able to give you the names of these professionals. You also may meet them at the funeral or memorial service. And you may find their names in the decedent’s personal papers, so don’t forget to check the papers scattered across the decedent’s desk.

  • Heirs-at-law and beneficiaries: You want to identify the heirs-at-law and the beneficiaries (persons who inherit under the will) as soon as possible. If no will exists, you’re required to notify the heirs-at-law of your petition for probate; if a will does exist, notify both the heirs-at-law and the beneficiaries. Be sure to get the beneficiaries’ addresses, telephone numbers, and Social Security numbers, and the heirs-at-laws' addresses.

    The surviving spouse and/or other family members can provide family information to help you determine the heirs-at-law. After you find the Last Will, you can determine from it who the beneficiaries are. See Appendix B for a state-by-state listing of the laws of intestacy (dying without a will) to help you identify the heirs-at-law.

  • Social Security Administration: Call the Social Security Administration (SSA) at 800-772-1213 or contact the local SSA office (the local office is often easier to deal with) to report the decedent’s death. If the decedent was receiving his or her benefits by direct deposit, notify the bank of the decedent’s death and request that it return any funds it receives for the month of death and beyond to the SSA.

    Don’t close the bank account that’s receiving direct deposits before any Social Security checks have arrived and been returned to the SSA, or the checks may be in limbo!

  • Veterans’ Administration: If the decedent was receiving veterans’ benefits, call 800-827-1000 to report the death. You should also ask about burial and other benefits that may be available to a surviving spouse or minor children.

  • Pension and other retirement plans: Notify each of the retirement plans in which the decedent had an interest, whether the plan was sponsored by an employer or created by the decedent.

  • Employer and employees: If they aren’t already aware of the decedent’s death, notify the decedent’s employer and/or employees as applicable.

  • United State Postal Service: If no surviving spouse still lives at the decedent’s residence, file a change of address form with the post office as executor, indicating where the decedent’s mail should be sent. If the decedent’s spouse survives, you needn’t notify the post office. The spouse may also pay them and present the paid bills to the executor for repayment.

  • The decedent’s landlord, if any: Notify the landlord of the decedent’s death, and if the surviving spouse doesn’t want to continue the lease, vacate the premises as soon as is convenient, after allowing time for disposition of the decedent’s personal articles. Be sure to review the lease; some leases may have a provision for termination upon death. Often, you can reach an agreement with the landlord for early termination.

  • Creditors of the decedent, including credit card companies: Notifying creditors of the decedent’s death and the new address for statements makes them aware that you’re planning to pay the bills when allowed by the court. If any debts are in both spouses’ names and the surviving spouse has the funds to make the payments, he or she should make them so that his or her credit rating isn’t affected.

    You can pay the spouse back later from estate funds if it’s a debt of the decedent. Make sure that any surviving spouse has credit cards in his or her own name. Be sure to close all credit card accounts after they have been paid off, or have them retitled in the surviving spouse’s name alone. And cancel those debit cards tied in with any bank accounts.

  • Utilities and cellphone companies: Have utilities transferred to the surviving spouse’s name, if applicable; if the decedent has no surviving spouse, have the utility bills mailed to you until you’ve cleared out the decedent’s residence, at which time you may want to arrange for some of the utilities to be shut off.

    Cancel any contracts for telephone land lines, Internet, and/or cable TV services right away. If the decedent had a cellphone, check to see whether it’s under contract and, if so, if the contract is terminable upon death. (Most cellphone service providers are willing to cancel a contract when provided with a death certificate.)

  • Membership organizations of which the decedent was a member: Cancel the decedent’s memberships in any organizations. If the surviving spouse wants to continue a membership, help to arrange it.

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