The occasion of a loved one’s passing is a shock, and the loss can often throw those nearest and dearest off their guard. In fact, despite the difficulty of doing so, this is when at least one survivor must step up and take immediate precautionary steps to prevent the estate and its beneficiaries from falling prey to devious thieves, scammers, and simple oversights.
There are steps it is generally wise to take; while each situation is a little different, and a lawyer or advisor conversant with the family details may vary these instructions, the following actions should generally be considered in each case:
- Securing the Personal Residence
If the deceased lived alone, and no one will be occupying the residence after death, change the locks or lock codes. The person who is nominated as personal representative (executor) has the right under law to secure personal property even before his or her official appointment. That person should visit the property periodically and clean out the mailbox: the U.S. Postal Service may not accept a change of address order until the official appointment as personal representative is obtained, but once they will, the representative should file a change of address so that mail will stop piling up at the residence. Stop newspaper deliveries, but allow landscaping or snow shoveling services to continue and consider installing timers for electric lights. If it’s winter, keep the heat at 60°. The goal is to minimize the appearance that the property is untended. Also, contact the agent on the homeowners’ insurance to understand what may be needed to fully cover the house or other dwelling from loss if it is going to stand vacant. A last note: at the time of the funeral, leave a trusted person at the residence to stand guard. The posted funeral time has been shown to be a prime time for burglars to strike.
- Safeguarding Family Information in Death Notices
Be careful about how much information is placed in a death notice. In recent years, scammers have used these as a source of information about the decedent in order to steal his or her identity, target survivors (especially elderly surviving spouses) and perpetrate other frauds such as using fictitious debts or insurance policies to glean personal information or even payments, such as loan payoffs, “final” premiums and the like. Don’t include the decedent’s date or place of birth, middle name, address, or mother’s last name. All of these are personal details which can be used by a crook to victimize others. Consider even omitting the last names of survivors and the names of grandchildren entirely. Fraudsters have been known to call relatives posing as grandchildren in need of money due to an emergency (this is a widespread and surprisingly successful con.)
- Whom to Notify
Notify the Social Security Administration (some funeral directors will do this as part of their services—check to see if that applies), the Veteran’s Administration (if applicable), banks at which the decedent may have had accounts in his/her sole name, brokers and investment companies, and credit card issuers. The three major credit agencies—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—should also be notified of the death and the decedent’s account flagged for any new activity.
- Organizing Estate Plan Records
Locate and secure the estate planning documentation. Often the drafting attorney will store these for his or her clients, so that contacting the attorney is a good place to start. If that inquiry proves fruitless, take the time to find original or even copies of any wills, trusts and other documents (including handwritten notes) which may be stored with them. Document where you found them and what efforts you took to locate them. (Under no circumstances should you write on the documents themselves, however.) If there is any question about which documents govern, this information could be valuable.
In sum, even before the legal process of estate settlement starts, the days and weeks following a death (especially where there is no surviving spouse) can be used to protect the estate and the survivors from not only unanticipated misfortune, but from the bad intentions of others who make it their business to deprive the rightful survivors of their inheritance.