How to Close Affairs After the Loss of a Loved One

Avoid costly mistakes by knowing what to do right away, and what not to do.

Upset woman at desk with computer, working on closing an estate.
Closing an estate is exhausting. Guidance and checklists can help you during this trying time. PeopleImages/Getty Images

Losing a spouse or loved one is challenging. You must handle volumes of paperwork and phone calls. You have to figure out how to handle financial affairs, creditors, memberships, bills, family, etc. It can be flat-out overwhelming.

I caught up with Tisha Diffie, founder of After the Fact – Final Affairs, LLC to find out what an executor or personal representative needs to do to handle things correctly after the loss of a loved one.

Tisha founded her business after the death of her father as she herself became overwhelmed when handling his estate. She saw how easy it can be for survivors to make costly mistakes.

Tisha provided the following tips to help a surviving spouse or heir get things in order.

5 things that should be done right away

  • Call the 3 credit agencies and put a fraud alert on the Social Security number.
  • Run a final credit report on the deceased from all 3 credit agencies.
  • Keep the primary credit card and the deceased drivers’ license with you.
  • Punch a hole in the drivers license and passport.
  • Get all the paperwork together for the insurance companies.

Getting the items above done right away helps prevent identity theft.

Watch out for identity theft on the deceased

When people forget important steps in closing out an estate, it can catch up with them later. Tisha shared one such client story below (real names not used, of course):

"Bert and Millie were married for 47 years. Bert passed away four years ago and left his wife financially secure. She hired a financial advisor, updated her trust documents and made some updates to her home. She never canceled anything, changed names, or looked for missing money.Three years later, she started getting collection notices for charges relating to her deceased husband, collection calls from debt collectors, demand letters, e-mails asking for information about her deceased husband and many other issues.

She was stressed, frustrated, upset and mentally unprepared for this situation."

Millie contacted Tisha. The first thing After the Fact - Final Affairs did was go back to the date of death and look at what was going on then. They back-tracked bills, letters, appointments and other items left open. They reviewed memberships, subscriptions, hospital records and papers that had never been sorted. They notified credit agencies, service providers, churches and other businesses that Bert had been involved with. Ultimately, they discovered that his identity had been stolen through a local business. They took care of the debt collectors, cleaned up his credit, closed all open accounts, and wrapped up any other outstanding items they found.

According to Tisha, there are also some things you should not do right away.

5 things that should not be done right away

  • Don’t cancel the deceased's primary phone right away.
  • Don’t cancel the primary credit card right away.
  • Don’t inform everyone about the death right away.
  • Don’t put an obituary in the newspaper unless it’s necessary, and then keep it simple.
  • Don’t make any major decisions without consulting a professional first.

Be leaving phone numbers on you are able to receive important calls.

Leaving the credit card open may help you see what memberships or recurring items need to be cancelled.

If you are a non-spouse beneficiary you might also consider having the mail forwarded to a 3rd party. Volume increases after death for about six to eight months.

Don't make assumptions that someone else is handling it

Problems can be avoided if heirs seek professional help earlier in the estate-closing process. Most people only have to handle final affairs a few times in their life. With little widely available knowledge of what to do, it is easy to make mistakes. For example, most families make the following incorrect assumptions when wrapping up a loved one’s affairs:

  • They assume canceling the credit cards, utilities and service workers is the first thing you do.
  • They assume the hospital will let the doctors and health providers know about the death.
  • They assume because the wills and trusts are completed, everything is done and the attorney will handle the mundane items.
  • They assume because the estate is small, there isn’t a lot of work to be done.

If you or someone you know has lost a loved one or spouse, be patient with yourself and acknowledge that it is going to take a long time to get everything wrapped up. Consider hiring professional help. Be sure to run a final credit report, inform the credit agencies right away, and set a fraud alert.

Look for money in odd places

One of the most fascinating things Tisha shared: the crazy places they find money! She and her team have an exhaustive checklist they use to search for hidden items – and more often than you might think they find stuff. Sometimes money is taped to the underside of desk drawers, buried in the back yard, and once, gold bars were found dry-walled into the wall behind the desk. A hidden note left the clue as to where to find them.

I can tell you I’ve personally helped many clients through the loss of a spouse or parent. You'll need to have a final tax return prepared, and if there is a trust in place assets need to be disbursed according to the terms of the trust. It is a tremendous amount of work. If there was ever a time I would want professional help, this would be it.