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Dealing with finances after the death of a loved one

Sooner or later, our loved ones are going to die.

When it happens, family members are left to sort through a host of financial issues that start with funeral arrangements and usually end with passing along or disposing of a lifetime of personal belongings.

Here are some of the details that need to be addressed and how to handle them.

The first important step is to determine who's responsible for these matters. It makes a difference because financial institutions will only recognize authorized individuals.

Key positions include the executor of an estate, a beneficiary of an insurance policy or retirement fund, the holder of a power of attorney, a trustee, a joint owner of a bank account, or a co-signer on a loan or safe-deposit box. You can have as many copies of a death certificate as you want, but if your name and signature isn't on the safe-deposit box account, you're not getting into that box without a court order.

Speaking of death certificates, you will need lots of them, and you need them quickly. Most companies will need to have one to close out an account; insurance companies will require it to process a claim. Call the coroner's office in the community where the person passed away. If they don't handle it there, they can tell you who does.

"Every time you change the name on an investment, car, anything, you need a certified copy of the death certificate," says Connie Brezik, a certified public accountant and personal financial specialist in Scottsdale, Ariz.

If you're the executor of the person's estate, it's your job to pay any outstanding debts and disperse any remaining funds or property to the beneficiaries listed in the will.

Depending on the state, you may need to post a notice in the local paper where the person died, giving people a certain amount of time to make claims against the estate, says Dave Evans, vice president of retirement and financial planning with the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America. That keeps people from showing up months later to demand payment of a bill.

Getting a life insurance claim paid should be a fairly straightforward matter, Evans says. As a contract, it's not part of the person's estate and doesn't go through probate. Once it's submitted to the insurance company, it's usually paid within about 10 days and often covers immediate expenses, such as funeral arrangements and the payment of any pressing bills, such as a house payment.

In addition to an individual life insurance policy, if the person was still employed, life insurance may have been a company benefit. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the person's death, such as a car accident, an investigation may be done to determine the cause of death because it could trigger additional benefits. If a person died while traveling and had purchased travel insurance, there may be even more insurance benefits.

If the person who died was still employed, Evans says it's important to get a copy of the company manual and meet with the human resources manager.

Next: "There's a section for credit cards."
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