What to Do When a Parent Dies

Creating a financial checklist after a parent passes away.

Whether it’s expected or sudden, the death of a parent is a stressful time for most. While it’s hard to prepare yourself emotionally, there are steps you can take to manage the practical issues a bit more easily. Finances, for one, can feel like a maze of paperwork, digital records, passwords and perhaps even shoeboxes.

As you’re preparing for the death of a parent, a checklist of financial questions and actions may help you stay organized. While each family’s way of coping will be different, there are some steps you can take when a parent dies that may help you through this difficult process.

What to do right away

At first, it may be hard to think about money at all, but there will be choices to make in the days following your parent’s passing. It may help to take care of pressing concerns as early as you’re able, then take a little time before moving on to the next set of tasks.

  • Preparing for funeral costs: The median cost of a funeral in 2017 was just under $9,000,1 a major expense for many people. Costs do vary, however, depending on whether burial or cremation is chosen. It may be comforting to know that the Federal Trade Commission has a say in how funeral homes operate, and offers its own checklist to help you through this decision-making process.

  • Gathering official records: Getting access to your parent’s financial accounts may require proof of death, so this should be done as soon as you can. Most counties have an office of vital statistics that houses birth, marriage and death certificates, and some allow you to request those online. Others may ask that you call call or visit. If your parent passes away in another country, the United States Department of State will be able to assist you.

  • Contacting Social Security: If your parent was receiving Social Security benefits, reaching out to the Social Security Administration will ensure that payments stop, and keep you from having to repay the government.2 This may seem like something that can wait, but the government says it should be done as soon as possible. The funeral home may do this for you, but if not call 1-800-772-1213. If your parent’s spouse plans to apply for survivors benefits, or if you have other questions, visit SSA.gov.

What to do in the coming weeks

While you’re still in mourning, there will be certain things that need some attention in the weeks and months following the funeral, which can be very difficult. But this would be the time to review your parent’s will, settle their debts and make decisions about any property they own, perhaps even your family home.

  • Contact insurance companies and providers: If your parent received Medicare, the Social Security Administration should cancel coverage. But if they had supplemental Medicare coverage or private health insurance, you’ll need to contact the plan by calling the phone number on their ID card or statement.

    You should also notify life insurance companies to start the process of filing any available claims. And be sure to cancel any other insurance policies your parent may have carried, like auto insurance.

  • Secure the will: Naturally, a checklist for the death of a parent involves finding their will.

    If you’re not sure there is one, ask friends, siblings or your parent’s lawyer whether there is a will and where to find it. You could also ask your parent’s bank, in case the will is in a safe deposit box there. (Each state’s laws determine who can access the safe deposit box of a deceased account holder.)

    The best path to settling your parent’s will, especially if there’s an inheritance, may be hiring a probate attorney familiar with state and local laws. Ask trusted friends for a recommendation or contact the local legal bar.

  • Make a list of bills: As you go through your parent’s home, be sure to gather documents from every possible expense that may need to be paid or canceled, including utility bills and credit cards. If there are debts, alert the executor of the will. This is the person who was chosen to handle all final affairs, including paying ongoing charges and canceling things like subscriptions and memberships.

  • Contact banks and investment accounts: If your parent owned investments or other financial assets, they may have named “beneficiaries.” These are the people your parent left these assets to. With proof of death, you may be able to transfer the accounts to the beneficiary. Certain bank accounts are also set up as “Payable on Death” or POD, which means the assets transfer directly to the beneficiary outside of the probate process.

  • Settle debts: One hard aspect of managing a parent’s money is paying off debts. If your mom or dad had a loan with a spouse, the spouse may be responsible for the debt. Otherwise, the executor of the will is probably the person who will handle this.3

    If there is no will, the court will appoint an executor. Whatever the case, paying off debts is important for avoiding interest charges. This includes car loans, home loans, credit cards and medical debts.

  • Manage the home: If your parent lived alone, it can be difficult to decide what to do with their home. You could start by making a list of ongoing costs you’ll need to continue paying, including utilities, upkeep and taxes. (For reference, consider your own household costs.) It’s important that these bills get paid while you’re deciding whether to move into the home, rent it or even sell it. In the meantime, the mortgage company or landlord can show you how to continue making payments.

  • Pay your parent’s taxes: If your parent didn’t have an accountant and you don’t feel comfortable filing taxes yourself, ask friends and relatives for help finding a reputable accountant to file on your parent’s behalf. If possible, try to get ahead of taxes before they're due to avoid unnecessary headaches down the line. An accountant is especially important if your parent’s estate is in the tens of millions of dollars, in which case they may owe federal and state estate tax.

  • Pay your taxes: Even though there’s no federal inheritance tax, and only a handful of states with an inheritance tax, you should check with your local tax office to make sure you don’t owe anything. If you sell your parent’s home, the proceeds probably won’t be taxable because the “purchase price” will be considered the fair market value at the time of the owner’s death.4 Still, it may be worth consulting the IRS, your state tax authority or an accountant.

In a time of grief and challenging emotions, having a simple financial checklist after a parent dies, along with the help of experts, may relieve some stress and worry just when you need it most.

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