The first few days after a loss can be a whirlwind, but once the dust settles, you may have some practical tasks to handle. After you experience a death, one of the major projects is closing out the accounts of the deceased.
Financial entities, insurance companies, and government organizations all need to be informed of the death. This allows them to make changes to the corresponding accounts. Before contacting anyone you’ll need to get a death certificate. A funeral director or estate attorney will be able to help you with that.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- When You May Need to Get a Death Certificate
- When You May Not Need a Death Certificate
- If You Need One, How Many Death Certificate Copies Should You Get?
A legal pronouncement of death, or a death certificate, is the official document by which you convey to companies that someone has died. You'll need to file a death registration form first, and then you will need to get some certified copies.
These forms are available through your State's department of vital records. These copies are the standard document required to close out accounts and transfer ownership. In some cases, a regular photocopy of a death certificate will be accepted.
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When You May Need to Get a Death Certificate
Much of the work of closing out accounts happens through the mail or via online applications. To promptly file requests to close accounts, you’ll want to have several certified copies of the death certificate on hand. Working on closing out financial accounts is likely to be easier if you have financial power of attorney for the deceased.
Requesting payouts from insurance agencies
When you file for life insurance benefits, you’ll need certified copies of the death certificate. You’ll also need them for other kinds of insurance, like when you confirm someone’s death with their health insurance company. Send these death certificates as early as you can. The money associated with life insurance policies can be helpful when settling an estate.
If your loved one had burial or funeral insurance those companies will also require a copy of the death certificate. These expenses are often high and can come as a surprise. If you have the opportunity to confirm with your loved one about their current insurance plans, do so. Knowing what policies they have can help ensure you get enough copies of the death certificate.
Filing final tax returns
In most cases, one final year of tax returns will need to be filed after a person dies. An estate lawyer or an accountant can help you work through the details of this process.
Along with these final federal, state, and local tax returns, you’ll want to submit a certified copy of the death certificate. This document verifies there will be no further tax returns for your loved one.
Transferring human remains
If you plan to bury or cremate remains, a certified death certificate may be needed to transfer the human remains. Many laws govern this process. The laws become more complex if the human remains are going to travel across state lines.
Your funeral director or cremation services company can give you more information relevant to your circumstances.
Transferring titles between owners
If the ownership of an asset like a house or car is changing after a death, you’ll need to transfer the title, which shows ownership.
Typical a notarized signature is used when transferring ownership but transferring a title works differently when the current owner is deceased. You’ll need a certified copy of the death certificate to make the transfer happen.
Retirement plans, military benefits, and pensions
If the person who died was retired, they may have had a variety of retirement income sources. The most common one is Social Security, which is addressed below.
Many people have employer-sponsored programs like a 401(K) or a pension plan. The payouts for each of these plans vary. Try to contact the company as soon as possible to receive the appropriate form you need to record the death. The company will most likely need a certified copy of the death certificate submitted along with that form.
Some retirement income plans become assets that are transferred to another party, such as the spouse of the deceased, upon death. These funds cannot be transferred until they receive the information that confirms that the death has occurred.
Whether an individual has stocks, bonds, or other bank accounts, you’ll want to get in touch with the bank. They will have a process in place for closing accounts or transferring them to the beneficiaries.
Try to learn what you can about the financial picture of the individual before you order death certificates. A very practical way that a loved one can assist during bereavement is to call financial institutions. They can help get an explanation of the steps needed to close out the accounts.
When You May Not Need a Death Certificate
As you continue to work to close out accounts, keep at least one certified copy of the death certificate on hand. Some organizations may only need to see the death certificate and can return it to you afterwards.
Below is a list of some of the places that may not require a certified copy of the death certificate. You may be able to submit a photocopy of the certificate, rather than a certified copy.
In many cases, the funeral director can fill out a form to report a death to the Social Security Administration. This action may avoid the need for you to submit a death certificate altogether.
However, having a certified copy handy when you go to receive or stop benefits can be useful. The information on the death certificate may be needed, depending on your situation.
As soon as possible, gather and organize all of the deceased’s credit cards and bank accounts. Call each company and ask what they need to close out the accounts correctly. Some companies may require a certified copy of the death certificate.
Other companies may be fine with a fax or photocopy of the certified copy. Since these requirements vary, it is worthwhile to ask first rather than assuming everyone requires a certified copy.
Cell phone providers
Cell phone contracts are very difficult to cancel in life. They may offer a surprising amount of hoops to jump through after the cell phone operator’s death.
Make sure you call the cell phone company immediately and ask what they require to close an account. Some plans can be canceled simply by providing the correct demographic information. Others will request a certified copy of the death certificate for proof.
Motor vehicle division or bureau
To cancel someone’s driver’s license or to exchange license plates that were formerly for a disabled vehicle, you may not need a death certificate. But having a certified copy available when visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) may help speed the process. Your state DMV or BMV will have information on their website about their preferred process.
If You Need One, How Many Death Certificate Copies Should You Get?
When possible, try to gather some information about the person’s financial accounts before requesting any certificates. You’ll be able to calculate the number of certified death certificate copies you need after this step.
Some people have very simple estates with only one retirement account and only one bank. A person with a simple estate may only need an order of 8 or 9 death certificate copies to close everything out. However, most people have a variety of credit cards, insurance policies, and more.
If you know for sure that your loved one has a lot of accounts, tally up all the accounts that fall into the above “needs a death certificate” category. Take that number and then add at least two additional certificates. One is for creating photocopies, faxes, and scans, and another is an emergency copy if you discover an immediate need.
It may also be worthwhile to find out how quickly you can order more copies as well as the cost of ordering them. That way, you know the approximate cost and timeline should you need additional copies while settling your loved one’s affairs.
This may seem like a large expense, especially since the cost of additional copies can cost upwards of $20. However, getting at least 10 copies will likely save you hassle down the road.
Before you go through the paperwork yourself, check with your funeral director to see if they can request certificates for you. They are very familiar with the process and can save you time.
Moving the Process Forward
The days and weeks after a death are full of taxing experiences. Not only do you have to write an obituary, but you also have to file a lot of paperwork. The death certificate is a legal document, first and foremost, that allows you to alert companies as to a person’s death.
By getting plenty of copies, it will be easier to quickly file requests that you need. Waiting for a copy to be returned or for new copies to arrive is time-consuming.
If the paperwork becomes too much, enlist a friend or family member. They can help by recording forms as you dictate or even take over on form-filling. Many friends and family want to help but aren’t sure what will be helpful.
Enlisting them to send out notices to companies and government agencies can be a practical form of help. It also gives you the closure of some productive activities during a time when you probably don’t feel like doing such work alone.
These kinds of things can be difficult but planning ahead makes the process smoother. Making sure you have everything you need to close out accounts will allow you to complete the work quickly. Then you’ll be able to focus on grieving for your loved one without these tasks hanging over your head.
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.
- “U.S. Standard Certificate of Death” Centers for Disease Control, CDC, 2003, www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/dvs/DEATH11-03final-acc.pdf