Often I see families contact Sunny Care Services after they have already started working on closing out their lost loved one’s life and have made some major missteps along the way.

It happens. Hopefully no one is an expert at dealing with the loss of a family member, so it’s expected that there are some things you can’t know until you’ve done it…and potentially made mistakes as well.

Here are the bigger mistakes I see people make after losing a loved one and how you can avoid them. (*keep in mind this blog post does not intend to serve as legal or financial counsel, and Sunny Care Services recommends you first seek this out before taking action on any estate-related activity)

  1. Calling credit card companies before you’re ready
    • Mistake: Calling a credit card company and letting them know of your lost loved one’s passing for closing out the account without first knowing what charges were made to that credit card on a regular basis and what your account status on the credit card is (for surviving spouses).
    • How to Avoid: First you must make sure that you are aware of what charges were hitting that credit card and move any charges over to a more viable financial source if you need to continue to pay them. Once this credit card is shut down, it is much more difficult to know what charges were hitting that credit card. In addition, for someone who has lost a spouse and had shared credit cards, you must first confirm if you are an account HOLDER or an account USER on those shared credit cards. If you are only an account user, you do not actually have authority on that account and therefore will get shut out when you notify them of your spouse’s death. So if you are a user, it is easier to move all the charges hitting the shared credit card over to a bank card or another credit card that you do have authority on. How do you find out if you are an account holder or user? Simply call the credit card company and ask. Once you have transferred all charges you intend to continue, do not forget to circle back and notify the credit card company and credit reporting institutions in a timely manner. This is crucial to ensure there is no additional line of credit taken out in your lost loved one’s name. (*Note-account holders have full authority on credit cards and can notify the credit card company of their spouse’s death and can still maintain that line of credit independent of their spouse)
  2. Paying bills in the lost loved one’s name before you have consulted an attorney
    • Mistake: It’s in our nature to want to pay bills when they come in especially in your lost loved one’s name. We want to avoid going to collections and hurting our credit score, etc, but there are times when you could be spending money out of the estate that you didn’t have to.
    • How to Avoid: First run every outstanding bill in your lost loved one’s name by an estate attorney, even if you do not believe you need to go to probate and/or don’t believe you need an estate attorney. Simply getting a consult from an estate attorney will give you the clarity to understand what needs to be paid in your lost loved one’s name.
  3. Turning off service to the lost loved one’s cell/smartphone too early 
    • Mistake: When a family member shuts off their lost loved one’s smartphone too quickly, they immediately lose access to important contact info, potential passwords, accounts in their lost loved one’s name, access to their lost loved one’s email, photos, etc. There is so much information we can glean from a smartphone that is critical for closing out a loved one’s life and more on how to use a lost loved one’s smartphone can be found HERE.
    • How to Avoid: Do not shut off the service to your lost loved one’s smartphone until roughly 6 months after the death. This allows you time to systematically collect the information you are not able to access in other avenues, transfer assets, receive important phone calls, etc. Also canceling services and subscriptions is much easier if you can access the app itself and closeout from within.
  4. Not notifying social security (or ensuring social security knows of death)  
    • Mistake: Assuming that your funeral director notified social security and there is no action left on your end. Your lost loved one could still be collecting social security checks that must be refunded back to the social security administration after their death.
    • How to Avoid: You should still call your local social security office for the following reasons:
      • To confirm the funeral home did in fact notify the Social Security offices of your loved one’s passing and they have stopped all payments (if applicable).
      • To set up an appointment to discuss survivor benefits. Survivor benefits are mostly for surviving spouses and/or dependents under the age of 18, but it is still worth talking with a representative to see if you are eligible so you can make an informed decision if you want to accept the benefit.
      • To discuss the Lump Sum Death Benefit of $255. This is the standard payout that Social Security pays out to surviving family members for a loss. Again, worth calling Social Security to understand if you are eligible to receive this.
  5. Not securing property and online assets in a timely manner
    • Mistake: Leaving the lost loved one’s house full of valuables that are critical to the estate and/or hold sentimental value for the family. Also leaving online accounts open indefinitely after a loved one has passed. There are unfortunately people watching obituaries and taking advantage of the vulnerable families who may have their focus on their grief rather than watching to make sure the house is secure and or no one is meddling in the lost loved one’s online accounts. A hacker can wreak havoc on a lost loved one’s financial situation if they are able to access bank accounts and could make closing their estate that much harder.
    • How to Avoid:
      • Securing home: If there is a house sitting vacant now that your loved one has died, it’s important to make sure all valuables have been taken out of that house and that they are properly secured. Some local police departments will even patrol the house upon request.
      • Securing online assets: Potentially changing passwords for important accounts to more secure passwords or memorializing social media accounts (see how to memorialize in this blog post) is an important step in ensuring that before you have time to methodically go through each individual account to decide what you’re going to keep, transfer, and closeout, that no one else is able to access them.

Please note again that none of this information should be taken as legal or financial advisement. You should first seek professional legal or financial counsel before taking action on any lost loved one’s estate.