Create a checklist to stay ahead of emergencies

Bill Cass, CFP®, CPWA®

Bill Cass, CFP®, CPWA®, 07/14/21


The devastating impact of Covid-19 underscored the need for emergency preparedness. This includes being prepared and understanding what needs to get done when someone passes away.

The pandemic led more adults to create wills or estate plans. Among participants in an October 2020 LegalZoom survey, 26% of adults with wills said they prepared one because they were afraid of serious illness or death due to Covid-19.

In the event of a sudden health emergency or loss of a loved one, families can be challenged when trying to locate key documents or navigate the probate process. Even with a detailed estate plan, families can benefit from creating a short-term, emergency plan.

Make a short-term plan

Create a checklist in case a health emergency results in the loss of a loved one. Here are some items to consider.
  • Determine if the decedent wished to have his or her organs donated. The family doctor or nearest hospital will be able to provide direction on how to proceed.
  • Contact immediate family and close friends (and employer if applicable).
  • Confirm the decedent’s final wishes around funeral arrangements, burial, cremation, etc.
  • Determine if there are any pre-arranged (and paid for) burial or cremation services. Begin crafting an obituary.
  • Contact the funeral home for services. The funeral home can typically assist with contacting Social Security and beginning the process to obtain death certificates (ask for at least several certified copies required for processing insurance or property titling changes).
  • Locate a safe deposit box or a lock box containing important documents. Family members will need to find wills, trusts, bank and account statements, recent tax returns, life insurance policies, mortgage documents, burial/funeral instructions, titles to property such as auto, deeds, and other estate plan documents.
  • Gather personal identification documents including driver’s license, Social Security card, passport, birth certificate, Medicare card, etc.
  • Locate a military service record if applicable. There are certain funeral services and potential financial benefits available to veterans.
  • Notify the post office, if needed.
  • Establish access to some cash that family members can use as expenses arise.

Next steps

  • Document expenses related to the funeral. Some expenses may be deductible against estate/income tax.
  • Contact key advisors for guidance, including a financial advisor, CPA, or attorney.
  • Determine the executor of the estate. The executor should meet with a probate attorney and begin to collect information on assets owned for the probate process.
  •  Notify insurance providers (life, homeowners, auto, etc.).
  • Close credit card accounts and contact utility providers (cable, electric).
  • Gather information for the estate tax filing (form 706). This includes assets, date of death values, and taxes paid. Work with a tax advisor or attorney on preparing these forms.
  • Determine beneficiaries of any retirement accounts. Work with a financial advisor to understand the options and process for the transfer of these accounts.
  • Work with a CPA to gather information for the final tax return.
  • If applicable, evaluate options for Social Security survivor benefits.

Add a summary to the checklist

Individuals may want to prepare a letter that summarizes financial accounts and the financial institutions that hold the accounts. The letter should also include contact information for key advisors including the family’s financial advisor, attorney, CPA, insurance agent, employer, human resources, and pension plan administrator.

Preparing a checklist is an opportune time to initiate a conversation with family members before a loved one dies. In addition to letting them know about final funeral wishes and estate planning, it is important for family members to know where important documents, such as wills, are located.

For families just beginning to plan for these challenges, consider meeting with a financial professional to complete the key legal documents needed.

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