Category Archives: Settle an Estate

Paperwork and procedures an executor, trustee or family member must do to manage the financial affairs of someone who died.

5 things you should know before you agree to be an executor

When my father died ten years ago and I found out he had named me as his executor, I thought “Okay.  It’s no big deal.”  Was I ever wrong!  I didn’t realize how much time, effort and frustration would be necessary to get everything settled. And I didn’t know that I would also have to be a detective.

 AARP recently published an article that listed five questions you should ask yourself before you agree to become an executor.   You might feel flattered if asked but think carefully about the questions and be sure it’s something you’re comfortable taking on.

1.  Do you have the time to take on this project?  When I started the process, I didn’t realize that it would be more than a year before my dad’s estate would be settled and that, during that year, getting all of the paperwork done and answering all of the government’s questions would often feel like a full time job.

2.  Do you have the skills to handle the process?  You have to be very organized and good with numbers.  Keeping massive spread sheets and tracking all of the paperwork nearly drove me crazy.

3.  Do you have the temperament to deal with all of the details?  I am a fairly calm, easy going person but I found myself getting very frustrated when confronted by people who made ridiculous demands.  One example I can remember is when the state of New Jersey (where my father died) asked me to sign a bunch of papers in black ink, get them notarized and send them in.  I did that and was shocked when I received a letter from a government office saying that I needed to resign them in blue ink, get them notarized again and send them back.  I did it and got one more letter.  It told me that I had not completed the forms correctly.  Believe it or not, it the letter said that the forms needed to be signed in black ink! 

4.  Do you know the rules of the state in which the estate is being settled?  Estate rules are very complex and I ended up hiring an attorney to help me get everything processed correctly.  Many people take this step after realizing what is involved.  For example, if you incorrectly declare the value of the estate, there can be legal repercussions, not just for the estate but for you as well.

5.  Can you afford to be the executor of the estate?  I lived in California and my dad died in New Jersey.  Some things just couldn’t be handled by phone; this necessitated a few expensive trips back and forth across the country.  And it’s not just the money.  What’s your time worth?  Can you afford to handle this job for nothing?  In some states, executors are permitted to charge a fee that is a percentage of the value of the estate.  However, since this money comes out of the estate, taking a fee may cause conflict with family members.

If you agree to be an executor, be prepared to devote a great deal of time to the project.  Be patient and don’t let little things get to you.  Stay organized and check every detail.  You will get through settling the estate…eventually.

For more information about estate planning and settling an estate, go to


Unclaimed property – Are you a beneficiary but you don’t know it?

Over the last five years or so, a study has been conducted to determine how insurance companies ensured that beneficiaries of life insurance policies were notified that a relative with a life insurance policy had died.

The study was initiated by California Comptroller John Chiang, who used a Connecticut auditing firm to examine the payment practices of 21 life insurance companies nationwide.  The Controller’s investigation “has revealed an industry-wide practice of companies both failing to pay death benefits to the beneficiaries of life insurance policies and ignoring their legal duty to turn the money over to the State for safe keeping.  Instead, companies would draw-down the policies’ cash reserves in order to continue collecting premium payments from the deceased.  Once the cash reserves were depleted, the company would cancel the policy.  Past audits also found that insurers did not routinely cross-check the owners of dormant accounts with government databases listing the deceased.  In other cases, companies had direct knowledge of the policy owner’s death, but still did not notify the beneficiaries.”

When questionable practices were uncovered, lawsuits ensued.  The premise of one of the latest was that insurers used the Social Security Death Master File to determine whether  those insured who had living benefit riders to annuities had died and, if so, they acted promptly to stop payments.  However, the Death Master File and other means weren’t used as often to ensure that beneficiaries of life insurance policies were promptly notified that a relative with a life insurance policy had died, and the funds from that policy paid out.

In the case of one recent lawsuit, the lead plaintiff claimed that he was notified only in 2010, four years after the death of the insured, and then only by the state of Illinois Treasurer’s Office…not by the insurance company.  He received only a small sum, and it wasn’t until June 2012 that a larger sum was paid, without a good explanation.

Earlier this month (June 2013), Mr. Chiang reached a settlement on behalf of the state of California and its residents with 11 insurance companies who had been found to have underpaid life insurance benefits.  The agreements he reached required the 11 companies to do the following:

  • Restore the full value of all impacted accounts dating back to 1995;
  • Fully comply with California’s unclaimed property laws and cooperate with the Controller’s efforts to reunite these death benefits, annuity contracts and retained asset accounts with their owners or, in many cases, the owners’ heirs;
  • Pay the policy beneficiaries 3% compounded interest on the value of the held amounts from 1995, or from the date of the owner’s death, whichever is later.

If the benefits are not paid to the heirs within a specified period of time, the law requires businesses to send the list of abandoned property to the state.  In California, the period of time is three years; it varies by state.  In many states, this has become a large source of revenue.  However, the states’ first goal is to return the money to its rightful owners.

Many other states have followed California’s lead, filed suits against the major insurance companies, and will also benefit from California’s settlement with those 11 companies.

To learn more about beneficiaries and estate related topics, go to



Need a death certificate? Here’s how to get one.

Someone wrote to us at and said she needed help finding an attorney so she could get an original death certificate of a deceased relative.

A death certificate is the official certified document which is filed upon a person’s death.  You might wonder why she would need an original or certified copy.  There are several possible reasons; here are just a few of them.

  • To settle an estate
  • To end government services such as Social Security or Medicaid
  • To collect on an insurance policy

We may not know the exact reason she needs one but there is one thing that is certain; she definitely doesn’t need an attorney to get a death certificate.

Here are the simple steps that she, and anyone else who needs one, should take.  There are several websites that offer to help you obtain copies of death certificates.  However, those copies are not certified or “official”.

1.  Determine whether you are eligible to receive a death certificate.  In most states, you must be a surviving relative of the deceased, their authorized representative or executor, or a funeral director in charge of the disposition of the deceased.

2.  Find the contact information for the department of vital statistics in the state where the person died.  This department may be part of the state’s department of health and human services or the state’s records department.  Regardless of its name, it is where all births, deaths, marriages and divorces are recorded for that state.  You can usually find the contact information by searching the web.  You will need the mailing address for submitting a request and, if you have questions about the process, you should also find their phone number.

3.  Some states require a letter with a great deal of information about the deceased as well as the requestor.  Others have a form available online which can be downloaded.  Regardless of whether it’s a letter or a form, you will have to provide the necessary information and either mail it to the facility or take it there.

Here’s the information that must be provided:

  •  Full name of the deceased
  • Date of the request
  • Deceased’s date of birth and date of death
  • Location of the death (city, state, county)
  • The deceased’s gender – male or female
  • Your relationship to the deceased
  • Why the certified copy of the death certificate is needed
  • A copy of your driver’s license or, at least, your driver’s license number and issuing state
  • Your name and current address
  • Your handwritten signature

4. Write a check for the amount due.  Most states charge between $10 and $15 per certified copy and it usually takes a week or 10 days for you to receive the copy.  In addition, some states offer same day service for a higher fee.

5.  Place the completed application or letter in an envelope, along with any identity documents and a check or money order to cover the fee.  Also enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope in which the certificate you’ve requested can be sent to you.  Mail this material to the department address which you obtained earlier.

Although a lawyer may be very helpful in resolving many of the issues that arise after someone dies.  However, he or she is not needed if you only want to receive a death certificate.

For more information about death certificates, go to

Tax ID Theft – a massive problem, especially in Florida

Identity Theft

Identity theft of the deceased is a problem which we have written about before. It’s one that can be prevented by taking some simple steps. However, the U.S. Treasury Department recently announced a new, lucrative reason to steal and use the identity of a deceased person – tax identity fraud.

How does this work? Using stolen names and Social Security numbers, thieves are filing phony electronic tax forms to claim refunds. According the U.S. treasury department, this is a huge problem that could cost our country $21 billion over the next five years. The number of cases nationwide has skyrocketed from 48,000 in 2008 to more than 1.2 million in 2012.

It is a very troubling problem since, unlike Medicare fraud, it is associated with violent crime and armed gangs. All a gang needs is your name and tax ID number. They can make up the other details needed to complete a tax form.

To prevent this from happening, the IRS is trying to speed up the loading of data from W-2 payroll forms issued at the beginning of the tax season, a time lapse which gives thieves time to file using false data.

They are also looking for ways to authenticate the identity of tax files at the time of filing and are working with the Social Security Administration to limit access to a registry of Social Security data of deceased tax payers, the Death Master File. This File is often a target of fraud since Social Security numbers currently become public record 90 days after someone dies.

To learn more about identity theft of the deceased and find out how you can prevent the identify of a loved one from being stolen, go to

Isn’t identity theft just by strangers?

Identity theft of the deceased is a huge problem today. You may think that it is just strangers preying on the families of deceased loved ones. However, it is sometimes those loved ones who perpetrate the fraud.

Last week in New Jersey, Jocelyn Russo, 36, pleaded guilty to using her dead aunt’s identity to gain access to credit card and bank savings accounts. Pretending to be her aunt, Jocelyn used her aunt’s Social Security number and other identifying data to authorize the addition of her name to her aunt’s accounts at Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase.

As her aunt, she added herself to credit card accounts as an authorized signer. She then made large purchases with those credit cards and didn’t pay them off. She also withdrew all of her aunt’s funds from a bank account at Provident Bank.

The three banks involved lost more than $30,000 because of the fraud and, of course, any other immediate family of the deceased suffered emotional as well as financial damage.

Russo is charged with bank fraud and can face a possible penalty of 30 years in jail and a fine of $1 million. She will be sentenced in February, 2013.

If you are the executor of someone’s estate, you should work quickly to notify the three credit bureaus about the death and to ask them to place a death flag on the accounts. You should also contact any financial institutions with which the deceased did business. Once the accounts have been flagged as belonging to someone who is deceased, fraud like the one the Jocelyn Russo perpetrated cannot happen.

For more information, go to or look for our book, GRAVE ROBBERS…HOW TO PREVENT IDENTITY THEFT OF THE DECEASED.