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Cunningham, Malone, & Morton

The Tax Professionals

Coping with Death of a Loved One

When tragedy strikes the last thing anyone wants to be bothered with are financial obligations surrounding the event. Let us share this burden with you, here are some guides to get you started.

Table of Contents

Death of a Spouse: Financial Steps You Should Take

The death of a spouse or loved one is a difficult time. Yet, during this period, important financial arrangements must be made. This Financial Guide will help you handle the many financial details which must be attended to on the death of a loved one.

Coping with the death of a spouse is difficult at best, but unfortunately many decisions need to be made and actions must be taken in the first few months after the death occurs. This Financial Guide provides information that will help guide you through this difficult time.

Collecting the Papers

The first step is to collect the necessary paperwork so that you can finalize the estate and file for any benefits that you and your children are entitled to.

The Death Certificate

Many of the offices or agencies you contact will require you to provide a copy of the death certificate. You can buy certified copies of the death certificate through your funeral director or directly from the county health department for a small fee, typically a few dollars per certificate. It is worth paying the money for the certified copies however, since many companies require it.

Tip: Whether you think you need them or not, try to get at least 10 certified copies of the death certificate.

Insurance Policies

You will probably find copies of life, health, home mortgage, accident, and other insurance policies in a safe deposit box or with your spouse's personal belongings. Any or all of these insurance policies could be sources of possible benefits to you and your children.

Social Security Numbers

You'll need the Social Security numbers of your spouse and any dependent children.

Tip: Your spouse's Social Security number can be found on the death certificate.

Military Discharge Papers

You will need a copy of a certificate of honorable (or other than dishonorable) discharge if your spouse was a veteran. If you cannot find a copy of the discharge, write to:

The Department of Defense
National Personnel Record Center
9700 Page Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63138
(314) 801-0800

Marriage Certificate

If you are going to apply for benefits based on your marital relationship, you will need copies of your marriage certificate. Copies are available at the office of the County Clerk where the marriage license was issued.

Children's Birth Certificates

You will need copies of birth certificates for dependent children. Copies are available at either the state or county public health offices where the child was born.

The Will

You will need a copy of the will. Your spouse's lawyer may have the will or it may be in a safe, a safe deposit box, or with your spouse's personal belongings.

List of Assets

A complete list of all of your spouse's property, including real estate, stocks, bonds, savings accounts, and personal property, will be needed. Land titles, stocks certificates, and other financial papers may be stored in a safe deposit box or other secure place.

Related Guide: To help your spouse find all the needed information and be better prepared for your death, please see the Financial Guide: POST-MORTEM LETTER: How To Prepare It And What To Include

Survivor Benefits

The next step is to determine whether you are eligible for any benefits.


Contact any insurers that may have issued policies to your spouse. Your spouse may have had several types of insurance policies, including the following:

  • Life insurance,
  • Mortgage or loan insurance,
  • Accident insurance,
  • Auto insurance,
  • Credit card insurance, and
  • Various types of insurance provided by your spouse's employer.

The proceeds from an insurance policy can generally be paid directly to the named beneficiary. These claims can be processed quickly and are an important source of income for the survivors during this difficult time.

Tip: File claims for insurance policies as soon as possible, especially if finances are a concern.

You may be required to decide you want the payments made. Options might include taking the money in a lump-sum, or having the insurance company make fixed payments over a period of time. Which payment option to choose depends on your financial situation. You may, for example, want smaller fixed payments in order to have a steady income. Or you may want the full amount immediately to pay bills or to invest.

It is highly recommended that you consult with a financial advisor about this decision. Do not succumb to pressure from an insurer to accept one plan or another. Take your time and make the right decision for you and your family.

Social Security

Your spouse is considered covered by Social Security if he or she paid in to Social Security for at least 40 quarters. If you're not sure or need more information, contact your local Social Security Administration office or call 800-772-1213 to determine if he or she was eligible. To find the location of your local Social Security Office, visit the Social Security Administration Office Locator.

Tip: If the deceased was already receiving benefits, do not deposit any checks received after death before checking with Social Security.

If your spouse was eligible, there are two additional types of possible benefits: (1) a death benefit and (2) survivor's benefits.

  • One-Time Death Benefit. Social Security pays a one-time death benefit toward burial expenses. Complete the necessary form at your local Social Security office or ask the funeral director to complete the application and apply the payment directly to the funeral bill. This payment is made only to eligible spouses or to a child entitled to survivor's benefits.
  • Survivor's Benefits for a Spouse or Children. If you are age 60 or older, you may be eligible for survivor's benefits. The amount of any benefits for which you will be eligible before age 65 will be less than any benefits due at age 65 or over. If you are under age 60, you may also be eligible for benefits if you are a disabled widow, age 50 or older and you care for dependent children under age 16 or disabled children.

Note: Children who are under age 18 or are disabled may also be entitled to benefits.

Tip: When applying for Social Security benefits, have available your spouse's birth and death certificates, your marriage certificate, birth certificates of any dependent children, Social Security numbers, and copies of your spouse's most recent federal income tax return.

Veterans' Benefits

If your spouse was a veteran who received a discharge other than dishonorable, you may be eligible to receive a non-service related death benefit. For non-service-related deaths on or after October 1, 2011, VA will pay up to $700 toward burial and funeral expenses (if hospitalized by VA at time of death), or $300 toward burial and funeral expenses (if not hospitalized by VA at time of death), and a $700.00 plot-interment allowance (if not buried in a national cemetery).

For deaths on or after December 1, 2001, but before October 1, 2011, VA will pay up to $300 toward burial and funeral expenses and a $300 plot-interment allowance. The plot interment allowance is $150 for deaths prior to December 1, 2001. If the death happened while the Veteran was in a VA hospital or under VA contracted nursing home care, some or all of the costs for transporting the Veteran's remains may be reimbursed. An annual increase in burial and plot allowances, for deaths occurring after October 1,2011, begins in fiscal year 2013 based on the Consumer Price Index for the preceding 12-month period.

Burial in a national cemetery is free to a veteran, his or her spouse, and dependent children. Veterans are also eligible for a headstone or grave marker at no charge. The funeral director can help you apply for these benefits or you can contact the regional Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) office.

If your spouse was receiving disability benefits, you and any dependent children may also be entitled to monthly payments. Check with your regional VA office.

Employee Benefits

If your spouse was employed at the time of death, ask his or her employer about any survivors' benefits. Your spouse may also be due a paycheck for vacation or sick leave. If the employer provided life, health, or accident insurance, you may be entitled to receive payments under these policies. If your spouse belonged to a union or professional organization, find out if this organization offers death benefits for members. If the death was work-related, you may be entitled to worker's compensation benefits.

You should also contact all past employers, including federal, state, or local governments, to determine whether you are entitled to any payments from a pension plan.

If your spouse was already retired and was receiving a pension, check with the employer to determine if you will continue to receive a pension payment, and in what amount. You should get professional guidance as to when and how to take any retirement plan distributions due your spouse or you.

Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: RETIREMENT PLAN DISTRIBUTIONS: WHEN To Take Them.

Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: RETIREMENT PLAN DISTRIBUTIONS: HOW To Take Them.

The Will

If your spouse had a valid will, try to find a copy of it. Check with your lawyer, family and anyone who might know where the will is kept. It may be stored in a safe deposit box, which is sealed at the time of death in some states.

Caution: Wills should not be stored in safe deposit boxes.

If your spouse did not have a will, his or her estate will be distributed according to state intestacy law. However, the state intestacy law will not apply to property where the title is in the name of the deceased and another person who has a right of survivorship. This property automatically passes to the co-owner.


Probate is the legal process of paying the deceased's debts and distributing the estate to the rightful heirs. This process usually entails:

  • The appointment of an individual by the court to act as personal representative or executor of the estate; this person is often named in the will. If there is no will, the court appoints a personal representative, usually the spouse.
  • Proving that the will is valid.
  • Informing creditors, heirs, and beneficiaries that the will is to be probated.
  • Disposing of the estate by the personal representative in accordance with the will or state law.

The personal representative named in the will must file a petition with the court after the death. There is a fee for the probate process. Depending on the size and complexity of the probable assets, probating a will may require legal assistance.

Assets that are jointly owned by the deceased and someone else are not subject to probate. Proceeds from a life insurance policy or Individual Retirement Account (IRA) that are paid directly to a beneficiary are also not subject to probate.


There are various taxes that will have to be paid. Here is a summary.

  • Federal Estate Tax. Estate tax is generally only due on estates exceeding the unified credit exemption equivalent, which for 2014 is $5,340,000 ($5,250,000 in 2013). In 2012 it was $5,120,000, in 2011, the exemption amount was $5,000,000, and in 2010, there was no exemption amount. Estates over $5,340,000 are subject to 40% tax (as of 2013).
  • State Death Taxes. State laws vary, but generally any estate which pays a federal estate tax must also file a state estate or death tax form and pay the state death tax. This amount is paid by the estate to the state in which the deceased lived.
  • State Inheritance Taxes. Again, state requirements vary. Most states charge no inheritance tax.
  • Federal and State Income Taxes. The federal and state income taxes of the deceased are due for the year of death. The taxes are due on the normal filing date of the following year, unless an extension is requested.

Tip: Professional guidance is strongly recommended in preparing the tax returns because the filing rules are quite complicated and many tax-saving opportunities might be overlooked by an unqualified preparer.

Changing Ownership or Title

You may need to transfer ownership or change title of property or revise documents after a death. Here are some items that should be checked:

Insurance Policies

If you hold any insurance policies, you may have to change beneficiaries. You may decide that you no longer need to have the same coverage if you do not have dependents, especially in the case of life insurance policies. Auto insurance and home insurance may also need revision.

Your spouse may have medical insurance coverage through work. Under a federal law called COBRA, you and any dependent children may be entitled to continue under your spouse's work-related medical insurance plan for up to 36 months, provided you pay the premiums. On the other hand, you may need to purchase your own medical.

Tip: Check with the employer to see if you can continue with its group health insurance plan, which may be less expensive. Contact the company issuing the policy to make any changes or for more information.


The title of the car owned by your spouse may need to be changed. Contact your state's Department of Motor Vehicles.


If your will provides for property to pass to your spouse, it should be updated. You may want to contact your estate planner for assistance.

Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: ESTATE PLANNING: How to Get Started.

Bank Accounts, Stocks, Bonds

If you had a joint bank account with your spouse, it will automatically pass to you. Check with the bank about changing the title and signature card on the account. To change stocks or bond tittles, check with your stockbroker.

If a bank account was held only in the name of your spouse, those assets will have to go through probate. An exception to this would be trust accounts.

Safe Deposit Box

In most states, if the box was rented only in the name of your spouse, it will require a court order to open the box. Only the will or any other materials pertaining to the death can be removed before the will has been probated.

Credit Cards

Credit cards held exclusively in the name of your spouse should be canceled. Any payments due on these credit cards should be paid by the estate.

Your spouse may have used credit cards in both your names or used cards listed only in your name. If so, make the payments due on these cards to keep your own good credit rating. Notify the credit card companies that your spouse is deceased and that the card should list your name only. Some people, particularly widows, may experience difficulties in getting a new card if they do not have their own credit rating.

Tip: When applying for a card, inform the lender about credit cards you shared with your spouse, even if your name was not listed.

General Finances

Debts owed by your spouse will be the responsibility of the estate and should be forwarded to the personal representative or executor who is settling the estate. However, you should pay debts that are jointly owed, particularly mortgage payments and utility or phone bills, in order to keep a good credit rating.

Caution: Do not immediately make permanent significant financial decisions, such as selling your home, moving or changing jobs. You will need some time to consider your situation before you can make these decisions responsibly. If at all possible, do not rush into a decision you might later regret.

Funerals: What To Do At This Stressful Time

Each year, Americans arrange more than 2 million funerals, often costing $10,000 or more. What are your options? What is required by law? What information are you entitled to? This Guide provides the answers to these and other questions.

Most decisions about purchasing funeral goods and services are made by people who are grieving and under time constraints. Thinking ahead may help you make informed and thoughtful decisions about funeral arrangements. Moreover, it will relieve some of the stress. If you plan ahead, you can carefully choose the specific items you want and need and can compare prices offered by one or more funeral providers.

There are federal regulations aimed at protecting purchase vs. funeral arrangements and services. This Financial Guide explains how to take advantage of these regulations to arrange for a funeral in the most cost-effective way.

Arranging a Funeral

When the time comes to make funeral arrangements, first decide how much you want to spend for the funeral. Funerals generally range from $4,000 to $6,000, and often much more, depending on location and style. Knowing how much you want to spend will help you to plan the funeral, and to keep costs within reason.

Tip: A cost-saving alternative for some people is a memorial society (click here for a list of memorial societies). Members of these non-profit groups, located in 40 states, have access to less expensive funeral alternatives, and may save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars on funeral arrangements.

If you decide to make advance plans about funeral arrangements, either for yourself or a loved one, you'll have choices of several types of dispositions and ceremonies. Unless a deceased person has indicated his or her desires, you will have to choose how the remains will be disposed of: burial, entombment, or cremation. You may wish to consult with your religious leader. The type of disposition you choose will affect the cost.

Tip: To help ensure that your own wishes are carried out, you may want to write down your preferences. It also may be helpful to tell relatives and other responsible persons what you have decided.

When pre-planning funeral arrangements, here are some of the services and options you should consider:

Tip: Bring a friend or relative with you, someone who is not emotionally involved, when making funeral arrangements, whether or not you are pre-planning them. This can help you keep the proper perspective on costs and elaborateness.

  • Filing of the death certificate and provision of copies
  • Moving the deceased's remains to the funeral home
  • Embalming
  • Preparing the body
  • Whether the service is to be indoors, at graveside, or both
  • Location of the service-at funeral home or at church or temple
  • Content of the service, who will conduct it, and other speakers
  • Music
  • Flowers
  • Pallbearers
  • The hearse to be used and limousines for family members
  • Transportation of the body to the cemetery
  • Whether casket will be open or closed
  • Viewing the body
  • Chairs and tents for guests at the cemetery
  • Guest book to be signed
  • Headstone
  • Obituaries

How the Funeral Rule Protects You

The Funeral Rule is the FTC's trade regulation rule concerning funeral industry practices and has been in effect since April 30, 1984. This rule, which is a trade regulation rule for the funeral industry, enables you to get price and other information about funeral arrangements both over the telephone and in person. It makes it easier for you to select only those goods and services you want or need and to pay for only those you select.

The Funeral Rule requires that the funeral provider give you a Statement of Funerals and Services Selected after you select the funeral goods and services you would like. The statement shows the prices of the individual items you are considering for purchase, as well as the total price. It also requires providers to give you the cost of individual items over the telephone or, if when you inquire in person about funeral arrangements, the funeral home will give you a written price list of the goods and services available.

When arranging a funeral, you can purchase individual items or buy an entire package of goods and services. If you want to purchase a casket and/or vault, the funeral provider will supply lists that describe all the available selections and their prices. As described in greater detail in the following section, the Funeral Rule helps you obtain information about the cost and availability of individual funeral goods and services.

Telephone Inquiries

When you call a funeral provider and ask them about terms, conditions, or prices of funeral goods and services, the funeral provider will:

  • Give you prices and any other information from the price lists to reasonably answer your questions.
  • Give you any other information about prices or offerings that is readily available and reasonably answers your questions.

Tip: By using the telephone, you can compare prices among funeral providers. Getting price information over the telephone may help you select a funeral home and the arrangements you want.

In-Person Inquiries

If you inquire in person about funeral arrangements, the funeral provider will give you a general price list. This list, which you can keep, contains the cost of each individual funeral item and service offered. It also discloses important legal rights and requirements regarding funeral arrangements. It must include information about embalming, caskets for cremation, and required purchases.

Tip: Use this information to help select the funeral provider and funeral items you want, need, and are able to afford.

Embalming Information

The Funeral Rule requires funeral providers to give you information about embalming that may help you decide whether to purchase this service. Under the Rule, a funeral provider:

  • May not falsely state that embalming is required by law.
  • Must disclose in writing that, except in certain special cases, embalming is not required by law.
  • May not charge a fee for unauthorized embalming unless it is required by state law.
  • Will disclose in writing that you usually have the right to choose a disposition such as a direct cremation or immediate burial if you do not want embalming.
  • Will disclose to you in writing that certain funeral arrangements, such as a funeral with viewing, may make embalming a practical necessity and, there would be a required purchase.

Cash Advance Sales

The Funeral Rule requires providers to disclose to you in writing if they charge a fee for buying cash advance items. Cash advance items are goods or services that are paid for by the funeral provider on your behalf. Some examples of cash advance items are flowers, obituary notices, pallbearers, and clergy honoraria. Some funeral providers charge you their cost for these items. Others add a service fee to their cost.

The Funeral Rule requires the funeral provider to inform you when a service fee is added to the price of cash advance items or if the provider gets a refund, discount, or rebate from the supplier of any cash advance item.

Direct Cremations

Some people may want to select direct cremation, which is cremation of the deceased without a viewing or other ceremony at which the body is present. If you choose a direct cremation, the funeral provider will offer you either an inexpensive alternative container or an unfinished wood box. An alternative container is a non-metal enclosure used to hold the deceased. These containers may be of pressboard, cardboard, or canvas.

Tip: Because any container you buy will be destroyed during the cremation, you may wish to use an alternative container or an unfinished wood box for a direct cremation. These could lower your funeral costs since they are less expensive than traditional burial caskets.

Under the Funeral Rule, funeral directors who offer direct cremations:

  • May not tell you that state or local law requires a casket for direct cremations.
  • Must disclose in writing your right to buy an unfinished wood box (a type of casket) or an alternative container for a direct cremation
  • Must make an unfinished wood box or alternative container available for direct cremation.

Required Purchases

You do not have to purchase unwanted goods or services or pay any fees as a condition to obtaining those products and services you do want, other than one permitted fee for services of the funeral director and staff and fees for other goods and services selected by you or required by state law. Under the Funeral Rule:

  • You have the right to choose only the funeral goods and services you want, with some exceptions.
  • The funeral provider must disclose this right in writing on the general price list.
  • The funeral provider must disclose on your itemized statement of goods and services selected the specific state law that requires you to purchase any particular item.
  • The funeral provider may not refuse, or charge a fee, to handle a casket you purchased elsewhere.

Preservative and Protective Claims

Under the Funeral Rule, funeral providers are prohibited from telling you a particular funeral item or service can indefinitely preserve the body of the deceased in the grave. The information gathered during the FTC's investigation indicated these claims are not true. For example, funeral providers may not claim embalming or a particular type of casket will indefinitely preserve the deceased's body.

The Rule also prohibits funeral providers from making claims that funeral goods, such as caskets or vaults, will keep out water, dirt, or other gravesite substances when it is not true.

Statement of Funeral Goods and Services Selected

The funeral provider will give you an itemized statement of the total cost of the funeral goods and services you select.

Tip: This statement also will disclose any legal, cemetery, or crematory requirements that require you to purchase any specific funeral goods or services.

The funeral provider must give you this statement after you select the funeral goods and services that you would like. The statement combines in one place the prices of the individual items you are considering for purchase, as well as the total price. You can decide whether to add or subtract items to get what you want. If the cost of cash advance items is not known at this time, the funeral provider must write down a good faith estimate of their cost.

Tip: The Funeral Rule does not require any specific form for this information. Therefore, this information might be included in any document they give you at the end of your discussion about funeral arrangements.

How to Make a Complaint

If you have a problem concerning funeral matters, you should, of course, first attempt to resolve it with your funeral director. If you are dissatisfied, contact your federal, state, or local consumer protection agencies, or one of the organizations in the "Useful Resources" section below.

While the Federal Trade Commission does not resolve individual consumer disputes, information about your experience may show a pattern of conduct or practices that the Commission may investigate to determine if any action is warranted.

Benefits for Widows/Widowers

Many people do not realize that widows and widowers can begin receiving Social Security benefits at age 60 (or age 50 if disabled) on the deceased spouse's account. If you are receiving widows/widowers (including divorced widows/widowers) benefits, you can switch to your own retirement benefits (assuming you are eligible and your retirement rate is higher than your widow/widower's rate) as early as age 62.

In many cases, a widow or widower can begin receiving one benefit at a reduced rate and then switch to the other benefit at an unreduced rate at age 65. Since the rules vary depending on the situation, talk to a Social Security representative about the options available to you.

Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS: How To Get The Maximum Amount

Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: SURVIVOR'S BENEFITS: A Guide To This Often Overlooked Insurance Add On

Useful Resources

  • Most states have a licensing board that regulates the funeral industry. You may contact the licensing board in your state for information or help.

  • The International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards is a not-for-profit voluntary association providing examination services, information, and regulatory support to funeral service licensing boards and educators, governmental bodies and other regulatory agencies.
The International Conference of Funeral Service Examining Boards
1885 Shelby Lane
Fayetteville, Arkansas 72704
  • AARP publishes Funeral Goods and Services and Pre-Paying for Your Funeral, as well as other helpful pamphlets and free guides.
American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)
AARP Fulfillment
601 E Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20049
Funeral Consumers Alliance
33 Patchen Road
South Burlington, VT 05403
Tel. 802-865-8300
  • The Cremation Association of North America (CANA)is an association of crematories, cemeteries, and funeral homes that offer cremation. More than 750 members own and operate crematories and encourage advance planning.
Cremation Association of North America
499 Northgate Parkway
Wheeling, Illinois 60090
  • The International Order of the Golden Rule is an international association of independent funeral homes in which membership is by invitation only. Approximately 1,500 funeral homes are members of OGR.

International Order of the Golden Rule
3520 Executive Center Drive, Suite 300
Austin, TX 78731

  • The National Funeral Directors Association is the largest educational and professional association of funeral directors. Established in 1882, it has 14,000 members throughout the United States.
National Funeral Directors Association
13625 Bishop's Drive
Brookfield, WI 53005
  • The National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association is a national association of funeral firms in which membership is by invitation only and is conditioned upon the commitment of each firm to comply with the association's Code of Good Funeral Practice. Consumers may request a variety of publications through NSM's affiliate, the Consumer Information Bureau, Inc.
National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association
6290 Shannon Parkway
Union City, GA 30291
  • If you have a complaint or question about funeral arrangements or funeral home practices:

Selected Independent Funeral Homes
500 Lake Cook Road, Suite 205
Deerfield, IL 60015

Post-Mortem Letter: How To Prepare It and What To Include

The post-mortem letter, a simple and practical estate planning tool you can put together yourself, can protect your estate, maximize the amount available to heirs and save your spouse and executors a lot of trouble. This important letter tells your executor and survivors where to locate everything they need to carry out your instructions.

Does anyone other than yourself know where your tax records and supporting tax documents are located? How about deeds, titles, wills, insurance papers? Does anyone know who your accountant is? Your lawyer? Your broker? Your financial planner? Your insurance agent? If you pass away without leaving your heirs this information, it will cause a lot of headaches. Worse than that, part of your estate may have to be spent in needless taxes, claims, or expenses because the information is missing.

Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: ESTATE PLANNING: How To Get Started

The post-mortem letter is an often overlooked estate planning tool. Tell your executors and survivors what they need to know to maximize your estate-the location of assets, records, and contacts. Without the post-mortem letter, you risk losing part of your estate's assets because necessary assets and documentation cannot be located.

Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: DEATH OF A SPOUSE: Financial Steps You Should Take

What the Post-Mortem Letter Does

A post-mortem letter provides executors and survivors with the location of assets, the identity of professionals consulted by you during life, and the location of important records. And while its inclusion in your estate plan is optional, it is often a very helpful document to have during an especially stressful time.

To represent you after your death, your executor must know almost everything you know. He or she must have all of the facts, figures, and proof that you have at your fingertips. This is where the post-mortem letter is most helpful. Only with the aid of this information can the executor carry out your desires.

The post-mortem letter also serves to inform your loved ones of things you would like done in the event of your death and guidance as to how you would like certain items handled. This includes many things which may not be appropriate to include in your will or which need to be handled immediately after death and prior to a reading of your will.

What the Post-Mortem Letter Does Not Do

The post-mortem letter cannot be used in place of a properly executed will and does not have the legal force of a will. Similarly, it does not take the place of a living will. The post-mortem letter is designed to convey instructions after your death, as opposed to after a life-threatening injury. It is vital to have both a will and a living will in addition to a post-mortem letter.

How To Get the Post-Mortem Letter to Your Executors

Write the post-mortem letter now. Leave several copies of the letter in places where it is certain to be found after your death--for example, attached to your will, in your desk, with your spouse, with your attorney, with your executor, and/or in a safe deposit box.

If you do not want the information in the letter revealed before your death, leave the letter sealed.

Do not leave the only copy of your post-mortem letter in your safe deposit box. It may never be found or may be inaccessible after death.

Caution: It is extremely important that instructions be left with the survivors that none of your papers are to be thrown away until the matter is discussed with your attorney, accountant, or executor. Otherwise your efforts to provide information helpful to your estate may be thwarted.

Tip: It is critical to update the letter periodically to account for changes that occur after you write it.

What The Post-Mortem Letter Should Contain

The following items should be included in the post-mortem letter.

To-Do List

  • Notify your employer (remember to include phone numbers).
  • Notify certain friends and relatives (provide a list with phone numbers).
  • If you have volunteered as an organ donor, provide the information necessary for your family to act on your wishes.
  • Notify the Social Security Administration (include your social security number for convenience).
  • List of names and contact numbers for an accountant, attorney, financial planner, and insurance agents.
  • List of club memberships.
  • Any instructions on the care of pets.

Location of Your Will

The location of your final executed will should be mentioned, along with any copies.

Caution: Do not leave a will in a safe deposit box. Safe deposit boxes are sealed on the death of the decedent in many states; this will cause headaches and delay.

Guardians of Children

The names and addresses of guardians for minor children in case they are orphaned should be mentioned in your will. These should also be included in the letter.

Funeral Arrangements and Cemetery Plot

If you have made arrangements for funeral services or have established a pre-need funeral trust, provide details in the letter. The location of your cemetery plot and the location of the deed or certificate relating to the burial plot should be mentioned. Any specific instructions for the executor relating to burial should be mentioned in the letter.

Related Guide: Please see the Financial Guide: FUNERALS: What To Do At This Stressful Time

Tip: For the reasons mentioned above under "Location of Will," do not leave the cemetery plot deed or certificate in a safe deposit box.

Safe Deposit Boxes

The location of safe deposit boxes, the contents, along with the location of keys, passwords, and combinations, should be mentioned. The letter should indicate whether anyone else has access to the boxes.

Tip: If other people have access, ask the executor to take inventory of the box before anyone else is allowed to take items out of the box.

If you have rented a post office box, include the number, location of the box and location of the key.

Bank, Checking, and Credit Card Accounts

All checking and savings accounts and their account numbers should be mentioned. Instruct the executor whether a stop should be placed on withdrawals from these accounts, and whether anyone else has the right to withdraw from them, whether as a co-depositor or under a power of attorney.

Describe where your current and past checkbooks and canceled checks can be found. These may save the estate from having to pay a claim or expense that has already been paid, and can establish the cost of an asset.

Tip: Be sure to mention any accounts that are not in your name, such as deposits in a Swiss numbered account. Otherwise, these accounts may be lost because no one knows about them.

Tip: Keep savings accounts active by periodically sending a request for the balance in writing, or by making deposits. Inactive accounts that are left for a certain period may revert to the state.

A list of credit card accounts and numbers should be included. The executor should be instructed to cancel credit card accounts immediately, and to change joint accounts to single accounts.


Provide information on any outstanding debts. Some loans such as student loans and home mortgages may have an insurance feature which cancels the debt in the event of your death. In the case of student loans, this was often paid for in the form of a fee at the amount the loan was disbursed and many people are unaware of this feature. Examine your loan documents for any such features and detail them in your letter.

Tax-Related Matters

The location of copies of your income-tax returns going back as far as possible should be mentioned.

The location of copies of any gift-tax returns filed at any time should also be mentioned. If copies cannot be located, your memory of when and where the gift tax returns were filed, and the gift to which they related, should be mentioned. If there are any refund claims pending, or if you feel a refund should be filed for, mention these as well.

Attorneys and Other Professionals

Mention the names and addresses of any professionals associated with your affairs, or who could be of assistance to the executor. Include accountants, attorneys, insurance agents, financial advisors, bank officers, realtors, and brokers. If you relied heavily on these people, they could save your estate plenty of money and trouble just by answering a few of the executor's questions.

Tip: Also mention your physician, since your executor may need help in proving you were mentally competent.

Insurance-Related Matters

Mention all life insurance policies owned, with the policy numbers. Give the location of the policies. Do not neglect to mention employer-provided group insurance.

All property, liability, malpractice, business continuation, and other types of insurance policies should be mentioned. These policies may save the estate from having to pay a claim, and may also contain the location and description of properties. Further, access to these policies may allow the estate to obtain reimbursement for expenses incurred immediately prior to death.

Tip: Mention policies that have lapsed, since they may still have some value.

Property Owned

List all assets you own, and give the location of deeds and titles. Include personal and real property.

Tip: If you know of a market for some of your assets that might otherwise be difficult to sell (e.g., a special collection or unique asset), tell the executor about it.

Don't neglect to mention property that will not be easy to locate, e.g., property you have loaned out or sold on consignment.

Tip: If there is any reason why the executor should value a piece of property at less than its fair market value, explain why.


List all brokerage accounts and other investment vehicles, such as limited partnerships or interests in real estate.

Give the location of brokers' confirmation slips for purchases of securities going back as far as possible, in order to establish the cost of securities. The cost is your tax basis, which will affect the amount of tax you pay on a sale for securities you may have sold prior to death. The basis of securities held at the time of death will be determined with reference to their current value. If you cannot locate confirmation slips, then at least make a note of transfer dates shown on stock certificates and registered bonds. These dates will allow you to look up the price of the stock.

Provide information on all retirement accounts, including IRAs. Indicate your designated beneficiary and describe where statements are located. In the case of IRAs, provide information on the tax status of the account. In particular if non-deductible contributions were made a portion of the account may not be taxed to the beneficiary.


Provide a list of all prior employers, no matter how long ago you worked for them. You may be entitled to pension benefits or death benefits.

Tell the executor where to find a description of any pension benefits you are entitled to.

Provide the executor with a record of any governmental employment, past or present. For the armed services, include the branch of service, serial number, and approximate dates. You may be entitled to veterans' benefits or survivors' benefits.

Personal Papers

Mention the location of your passport and your birth certificate, which may be needed for Social Security benefits and employee retirement plans and specify the location of your marriage certificate, which may be needed in connection with the marital deduction, joint gifts, and statutory spousal rights. A divorce decree will also be necessary, and should be mentioned.


If you received an inheritance from someone, include the name of that person and the date of death. The executor may be able to claim a state or federal estate tax credit for transfers within ten years of your death. Note the location of any letters from the person's executor, if any.

If you have any future rights in someone else's property, whether by will or by trust, include those details.


If you have ever set up a trust or been named as a trust beneficiary, where the trust instrument is located and when the trust was set up.

Money Owed to You

Mention debts owed to you by others and any proof that the debt exists.

Government and Non-Profit Agencies

  • To obtain the free brochure, "Pre-paying Your Funeral" (#D13188) contact the AARP:
  • To order free educational materials visit the Federal Trade Commission
  • Funeral Consumers Alliance
    A nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting a consumer's right to choose a meaningful, dignified, affordable funeral.
  • Army and Air Force Mutual Aid Association
    An organization that provides information on officers' benefits and estate planning
    Tel. 800-336-4538
  • Navy Mutual Aid Association
    This veterans' benefit organization provides information for Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Public Health, and NOAA personnel
    Tel. 800-628-6011

  • These publications contain estate planning tips for military personnel:

    • National Guard Almanac
    • Reserve Forces Almanac
    • Retired Military Almanac
    • Uniformed Services Almanac (Active Duty)

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