How Long Should You Keep Documents After a Death?

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When someone you love dies, you can be left with more than grief. One of the hardest things to overcome immediately following a death is the pile of paperwork that often comes your way. 

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There could be unpaid bills, taxes due, assets to collect, and other loose ends financially. Additionally, everyone has legal records and medical documents that may or may not be worth hanging on to. 

Luckily, you don’t have to hold on to all of that paperwork forever. Below, we’ll let you know how long you should keep different types of documents after a death. 

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Legal Records

Legal records are any pieces of documentation related to federal, state, or local law. You should keep most of these vital records indefinitely. You can store them along with (but separate from) your own vital records. Then, plan to pass them down to your beneficiary after your own death. 

If the deceased person is missing any of these documents, you can request new copies from your Vital Records Office. Vital Records usually holds on to the following documents for 100 to 120 years. 

It’s a good idea to request five to ten copies of documents like the death certificate, which you might need to send off as evidence in managing the person’s estate.

  • Birth certificate: A deceased person’s birth certificate is important both legally and personally. Legally, you might need the person’s birth certificate to manage affairs related to the estate. Personally, you might want to hold on to the birth certificate if you’re interested in your family’s genealogy.  
  • Social Security card: Similarly, your loved one’s Social Security card is a vital document that you should store somewhere safe. You can always write down the deceased person’s Social Security number for your records, but you’ll sometimes need an official copy for managing legal matters. It’s also worth keeping your family member’s Social Security card as a historical document. 
  • Marriage certificates and prenuptial agreements: Evidence of marriages and prenuptial agreements are important for similar reasons. You might need them to manage your loved one’s estate. You might also want to have those documents on hand for family history. 
  • Divorce decrees: Just as marriage records and prenuptial agreements are important to keep indefinitely, divorce degrees make a big difference in estate management. A divorce decree may be the only paper evidence that your loved one and another person are no longer married. And unfortunately, that kind of evidence is important to have at hand in case there are any estate disputes.  
  • Death certificate: A deceased person’s death certificate is one of the most important documents to hold on to. You won’t find this in the person’s belongings, but you should acquire it after his or her death. Once you get the death certificate, scan it, and make several copies. You may need to use it to notify different parties about the person’s passing.
  • Legal will: You also need evidence that you’re the person’s legal representative or estate executor. If you have a copy of the person’s living will, you’ll be able to access other important documents and manage their affairs. 

Medical Documents and Information

If your loved one passed away after a long illness, they may or may not have kept hold of their medical records and documents. 

Now that medical records are stored electronically, paper records are much rarer. However, you still might find documents related to your loved one’s health. If you don’t find them, it’s often a good idea to request them from the person’s medical providers. As a rule of thumb, you should hold on to these records for about ten years

HIPAA laws in the United States protect individuals’ medical records, including those belonging to the deceased. But, as a designated representative or legal executor of the person’s estate, you have the legal right to access and maintain the person’s medical records. 

If the person never named a representative or executor, you’ll have to check your state’s law to determine who can look at those records. 

  • Health insurance cards: The deceased person’s health insurance card shows which coverage they had, when it began, and when it would have ended. This can help you avoid paying unnecessary medical bills that are covered by insurance.
  • Medical tests: Medical tests show which conditions your loved one did and did not have. These include blood serum tests, x-rays and scans, and other concrete results. They can help you determine how your loved one’s doctors came to certain medical conclusions. 
  • Prescriptions: Most prescriptions are now managed electronically. However, you might find paper scripts in your loved one’s home. You should keep these along with their other medical records. If you find medications, turn them into a doctor’s office or pharmacy. 
  • Medical history: If the deceased is your relative, it’s important to keep their medical history. This is the full history of their diagnoses and trips to the doctor or hospital. You can request a full medical history, including tests and diagnoses, from the person’s GP. Keeping this indefinitely can help you determine which conditions run in your family. 
  • Hospital discharge papers: If the deceased person went to the hospital often, they might have a stack of hospital discharge papers. These show why they went to the hospital and the results of those visits. These will help you ensure that your loved one received the highest quality of care. 

Financial Documents

One of the biggest headaches following a death is managing the person’s financial affairs. If you’re the executor of the person’s will or a beneficiary, this responsibility may fall to you. 

In general, you should keep the deceased’s financial documents for at least three years following the death, or three years after you file any necessary estate taxes (whichever is sooner). 

  • Receipts: Even though our financial transactions are mostly online, many people still hold onto paper receipts. Many of these can be tossed right away, but you should still hold onto them in case they’re relevant come tax season. 
  • Account statements: You should gain access to the deceased person’s accounts, including checking accounts, savings accounts, investment accounts, loan accounts, and credit accounts. Request statements going back as many years as possible. 
  • Tax returns: Tax returns are essential documents to keep and use for the next tax season. If you can’t find them, you can request them from the IRS. 
  • Pay stubs: Similarly, if the deceased was still working within the past several years, you should track down as many pay stubs as you can. If you don’t find any, you might be able to get a payment history statement from the person’s employer. You should also receive their W-2 when it’s time to file taxes.
  • Retirement: If the deceased person was retired, make sure to locate any retirement benefit and distribution statements. You’ll need these when you’re tying up the person’s taxes. 

Miscellaneous Documents

Those are all of the common documents that you’ll find yourself sorting through after a death. However, there are some other miscellaneous pieces of information you might have to deal with.

  • Diplomas: The deceased may have held on to his or her diploma from college. You can hold on to this as a memento, but it likely won’t be required for anything legally. The person’s education is usually listed on the death certificate, as well. 
  • Home and car insurance: As with health insurance, you should maintain copies of the person’s home and car insurance policies for at least 10 years. This can help ensure that the estate is properly managed. 
  • Rental agreements: If your loved one was renting a house, keep the rental agreement for at least three years. You may have dealings with the owner of the home, even after you’ve moved out the person’s belongings. 
  • Mail: If the deceased person is still receiving mail (and they usually will), you have two options:
    • If you shared a home, you can open and manage the deceased’s mail as needed. You can contact each sender and inform them that they’ll need to stop sending mail. You can also forward mail—individually or all of it—to a different address.
    • If you did not share a home with the person, you will need to provide proof that you’re the executor of their estate. Then you can complete a Change of Address order with the Post Office. 

Managing Documents After a Death

After someone close to you dies, it can be easy to get swamped down in paperwork. But it’s also important to take a step back and give yourself room to grieve. 

If you have all of the documents listed above, it will take some time to get through everything. Don’t be afraid to take a break or delegate the work to someone else. 

Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.


Sources

  1. “Where to Write for Vital Records.”CDC. www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w/index.htm
  2. Dimick, Chris. “Accessing Deceased Patient Records—FAQ.” Journal of Ahima. 1 April 2013 journal.ahima.org/2013/04/01/accessing-deceased-patient-health-records-faq/
  3. “Mail Addressed to the Deceased.” USPS. www.usps.com/manage/mail-for-deceased.htm

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