The Death List – What to do when you are responsible for taking care of a loved ones final earthly issues

I’ve had the unfortunate experience of losing a brother in 2014 and my mother in 2015.  As a friend put it, ‘Let me know if you need anything, but I guess you’re pretty much an expert at it now…not that you wanted to be an expert at this.’   When you are in agony over loss, having a checklist helps.  This list helped me greatly so passing it on.

Prior to Death
Bank – Add your name to the checking/savings account. Ideally, ahead of time, get your name added as a cosigner on their bank account.  This is much easier than setting up an account after death in which to receive checks and make final payments and simply makes paying for things, closing final business as well as closing the account later far easier.  Everyone should have a plan because we don’t live forever and things happen.  Planning ahead is an act of kindness.

Monthly Bills – If you don’t already know, get acquainted with who they have phone, gas, electric services with.  For my brother and mother, I set up online access to pay bills and view their accounts so I would suggest getting user and passwords ahead of time to simplify.

Credit Cards and Debts – You are NOT responsible to pay off credit cards of the deceased unless you are a spouse.
IF you are on any credit card accounts, after you handle any final business such as getting the card cancelled, have the rep you speak with remove your name as a final item.  Once your name is removed you can no longer speak on the decedents behalf because you are no longer on the account, but also, you cannot be held responsible for any balance due (except spouse see above).  When mother was very sick under hospice care, we knew she could no longer use her credit cards and took care of closing her credit accounts.  In my mothers situation, she had a ton of bills and no money to pay them, so I alerted all folks and repeatedly, that there was no money to pay off her debts.

Nursing Homes and Medicare – The way this works is that one must qualify for Medicare, get approved for payment and the nursing home gets paid 2 ways.  Firstly, they take all your monthly earnings, all but $40-60.00 in spending money per month (I know, right?).  This is based on all monthly payments your loved one gets direct deposited in their checking account, any VA or SSI or pension payments.  Whether your loved one gets 10k a month or 1k a month, they end up with $40 bucks and the rest goes to the nursing home.  The nursing home told me they wanted me to sign agreement so that they would take payment monthly directly out of mothers account. What I did is write the checks myself for my mother because I did not trust the system and I was very glad I did because the nursing home WOULD have taken mothers final January SSI check and left me stranded to pay the difference!  They said and I quote “We don’t refund money, it is up to the family to deal with paying back the VA or Social Security.’  So, pay it monthly yourself!!!  DO NOT allow a nursing home direct access out of the checking account ever!!!  Secondly the nursing home gets paid via Medicare, once they get all their paperwork in order.  The nursing home mother was in was slow and didn’t bother filing until after her death, even though we’d already moved her back home!  They may try to get you to pay but you do not have any responsibility to pay for nursing home care unless you sign documents that say you do! Read everything and ask questions.

After Death
You will ultimately need a death certificate and this comes from the crematorium or funeral home you use.  It takes time and longer depending on the burial or crematorium you use.  I used Acremation for my brother which was less than a grand, his ashes placed in a nice box and death certificates quickly provided. For my mother, who donated her body, I still have not received her ashes.

1) Funeral choices – There is a wide birth of choice here.  I chose simple, cremation which is what they both wanted, with a simple memorial at our home to honor them.
2) Obit in the paper – I did not announce their deaths in the paper because all their friends were alerted that needed to know but this is a step in the process so putting it in the checklist.
3) Death Certificates –  Order more than you think you will need right up front as this is the cheapest approach.  They get a lot more expensive to order later.  That stated, also understand that most places accept a copy rather than an original so most of us own a printer that copies and scans docs, makes things easy.  Both of my family members lived simply, did not own real estate or have any assets, just bank accounts and credit cards so I ordered 5 each. I still have all originals as I was able to use a copy for everything, just to give you an idea here.

1) Social Security – If your loved one is getting SSI payments, you will want to alert them to the fact your loved one has passed.  Please note that even if your loved one dies at the tail end of the month, if they do not live through the entire month, the money deposited will be taken back!  They don’t care that your brother had a car payment or mortgage due or the very simple fact that bills don’t stop at time of death here.  Send in Death Certificate once available. DO NOT spend that last SSI payment.
2) VA payments – Same as above.
3) Cancel the monthly bills, water electric, gas, phone, cell
4) Get all receipts ready to prep the final taxes.  On this note, I got mixed messages here but what I ultimately found out is this: On the final taxes, if doing electronically, such as via TurboTax, you will be asked the question regarding death.  If doing by hand, or via mail, write the words Deceased along with the decendent’s name, and date of death across the top of the tax return.  You would need to sign the forms as the appointed personal representative of the deceased.
But they died owing money to the IRS
*****Unless you are a spouse, IF the decedent died owing final taxes, and they died leaving nothing to pay off the debts, as my brother and mother both did, then you are not responsible for paying out of your own pocket.  This is per Lane Mullinax CPA.  I was quite nervous as my brother had apparently cashed out a small IRA to pay off personal debts he owed and plain giving money away to people he liked, realizing his death was imminent.  He despised the IRS and paid no taxes on the cash out and thus ended up owing taxes on it.  I was so relieved to know that I was NOT responsible to pay off the IRS on his behalf.
I want to stress that this situation is if the person has no assets, no cash left after bills, no home to sell off etc.  In my brothers case, he left a car payment, medical debts, monthly bills that needed covering.  Although his finances were considerably better than mothers, there were still earthly concerns to address at his passing that evaporated what was left in his checking account from his monthly VA and SSI checks.

A note about body donation – A lot of folks think this is easy peasy lemon squeezy.  I’ll donate my body to science, to a school, it costs my family nothing and at time of death, the family just makes a phone call en voila, my body will be whisked away, all take care of for free and they will get death certs and ashes later.  No, no, not quite.  Mothers body was donated to a school.  I will be kind and not mention them here.  But let me state that yes they finally agreed to take her body after I threatened to go to every retirement home in the vicinity and post a blog to re-educate folks about how the ball gets uncomfortably dropped at time of death.  Here’s why:  Schools and med facilities are always looking for different things.  They may not want your dad’s cancer riddled body because that is of no use to them right now, they have enough bodies with cancer for example.  So while someone may have indeed been ‘Pre-approved and accepted’ that actually is a false message and the school or med facility, at their discretion, may go back on their promise right when you are at your most vulnerable time. If your loved one is in a hospital or nursing home, they MUST be moved immediately!  This means planning ahead.  I was tipped off by my hospice rep that things are kind of ugly with body donations and called ahead, got flack and baracudaed past all of that with threats.  Not a great thing to sort through 11th hour either when one wants to be as calm as possible and be there for their loved one not on the phone arguing about taking the body later!  IF your family member has agreed to donate their body, I would seriously look at other options that fit your situation, ahead of time.
5) On this checklist is yourself, from planning time off for bereavement, PTO time, to also taking time to be alone and with friends and family for support and maybe a trip to the SPA.  Your loved one would want you to be happy and healthy so as much as this time just God awful hurts, do take some time to love and nurture yourself.  Do it for them!