Skip to main content
Iowa Attorney General
Main Content

Steps Following the Death of a Loved One

The death of a loved one can cause a painful period of mourning and loss. However, the credit, financial, and online presence of a loved one continues even after their physical loss, unless certain steps are taken. Neglecting to take these steps can leave those surviving vulnerable to identity thieves, debt collectors, and more. To prevent further hardship in those difficult times, save and use this checklist of steps following the death of a loved one.  

 

□ Prevent Identity Theft 

Identity thieves are out to prove there is life after death. They read obituaries to find personal information they can use to open new accounts, get a tax refund, use medical insurance, or apply for government benefits. This practice is so common, it’s called “ghosting” and it can be scary when it happens to a loved one who has passed away. Fortunately, there are precautionary steps that can be taken after a loved one has died to prevent identity theft. 

Institutions to Notify: 

  • Government: Individuals are identified using legal documents associated with various government institutions. Those institutions, including the Social Security Administration, Department of Transportation, U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Postal Service, should be notified promptly after your loved one’s passing so their identifying legal documents can be marked as “deceased.” 

  • Private institutions: Credit, financial, and insurance companies should also be notified promptly so the loved one’s accounts can be flagged as “deceased.” Doing so can help to alert institutions of any future activity on the accounts as potential identity fraud. 

  • Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion: The Social Security Administration periodically notifies the three nationwide credit agencies (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) of recent deaths, and those credit agencies share notifications with one another. However, there can be clerical errors in adding this information and it can take several months to share, which leaves a period of vulnerability for identity theft. To ensure accuracy, you should promptly send each of the three credit agencies a death certificate by mail with a return receipt requested to mark the account as “deceased.” A spouse or executor can request a copy of the deceased’s credit report, which can be helpful in searching for unauthorized activity and in the probate process.  

  • In the requests, include the following information about the loved one: 

    • Legal Name 

    • Social Security Number 

    • Date of Birth 

    • Date of Death 

    • Last known address 

    • A copy of the death certificate 

  • Also include the following information about yourself: 

    • Legal Name 

    • Copy of identification, such as driver’s license 

    • Current Address 

    • Copy of Letters Testamentary, Power of Attorney, or other legal documentation with a court seal indicating you are the executor of the estate. 

  • Experian: P.O. Box 9701 Allen, TX 75013

  • Equifax: P.O. Box 105139 Atlanta, GA 30348

  • TransUnion: P.O. Box 2000 Chester, PA 19016 

  • Other: Additional institutions you may consider contacting include employer(s), membership/ subscription programs, utility companies, professional licensing agencies (e.g. bar association for lawyers, medical boards for doctors, etc.), Veteran’s Administration (if the deceased was a veteran), and Immigration Services (if the deceased was not a U.S. citizen). 

Documents to Obtain: 

  • Any of the government or private institutions listed may require proof of death, proof of your relation, and/ or original copies of the identifying legal documents (such as driver’s license or passport). One document that many institutions require is a death certificate; a rule of thumb is to obtain 10 copies of the death certificate for these purposes.

  • Due to ease of access to personal information and uncertainty surrounding the death of a loved one, identity theft is sometimes committed by a close friend or relative. Therefore, it is important to keep passwords, credit, financial, and identifying documents in a secure location. Limit access to a few trusted individuals and shred any junk mail or documentation that has lost relevance.

  • Important documents to secure include: the will, marriage and birth certificates, tax returns from the last two years, copies of recent credit reports from Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion, copies of all insurance policies, records of accounts, records of debts, and identification documents.

Resources: 

  • For details on immediate steps to take, click here.

  • Further information and resources are provided at this link

  • If you believe your loved one’s identity has been stolen, you can report it here

 

□ Debt Collection 

After a loved one passes, the last thing survivors want are calls from debt collectors asking them to pay a loved one's debts. Americans die with an average amount of debt of more than $60,000.

Who’s responsible for repaying the debt? 

Debt does not disappear with a loved one’s passing. However, extended family and friends are not typically responsible for repaying that debt; rather, it is repaid using the assets of the estate. Certain exceptions to this exist if, for example, it is joint debt, co-signed debt, a home equity loan on an inherited house, debt in a community property state, or an inherited timeshare.

What are my rights? 

Regardless of whether the debt will be repaid out of the estate or your own pocket, individuals have rights in manners of debt collection under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). This act limits who debt collectors can contact, what information they share, and how they present that information.

 

□ Social Media and Email Accounts 

One estimate predicts the accounts of deceased Facebook users will outnumber those of living users in the next 50 years. 

How important are social media and email accounts? 

These accounts are often overlooked after the death of a loved one. Since they contain access to personal information and contacts, social media and email accounts are often targeted by scammers. Stories of scammers stealing photos, posing as loved ones, and accounts appearing in suggested friends or invite sections are becoming increasingly common. The process of securing accounts may be helpful in the grief and memorial process as well. 

What are my options? 

  • Most social media sites offer the option to delete the account, which will permanently remove it from the site. Some sites also offer the option to memorialize the account, limiting its activity to serve solely as a place for family, friends, and neighbors to remember and honor the loved one.  

  • For a guide to addressing accounts on several popular social media sites, click this link.

  • Facebook offers an additional option to act as a legacy contact, which you can read about here

□ Hospital, Nursing Home, and Funeral Bills 

End-of-life care can cost several thousands of dollars between hospital, nursing home, and funeral bills. The financial responsibility for these costs can vary depending on the type of care, state laws, and other regulations.  

Who’s responsible for unpaid bills? 

In most cases, these bills are paid out of the estate, much like the loved one’s debt. Similarly, if a loved one received care from a hospital or nursing home that was paid for by Medicaid, the state may recover a portion of the care costs from the loved one’s estate through the Medicaid Estate Recovery Program (MERP). This program does not require adult children to financially contribute to their loved one’s end of life bills.  

What happens if the estate is insufficient to cover these bills? 

When the assets of the estate are not enough to cover unpaid hospital and nursing home bills, family members may be held financially responsible in states that have filial responsibility laws, such as Iowa.  

  • Filial Responsibility is the legal term for the responsibility of adult children to provide for their parents’ necessities of life if/ when the parents are no longer able to provide for themselves. These laws vary across states and may hold adult children to differing degrees of responsibility depending on income, location, previous parental assistance provided, and several other factors. Enforcement of filial responsibility laws is rare, but if a case is brought against you, consult with an elder law attorney.  
  • Funeral Costs: In cases where the loved one did not have funeral insurance or the estate cannot cover funeral costs, whoever signs the funeral contract is responsible for paying the remaining amount. If the signee is unable to pay those costs, there may be additional assistance available: 

    • Surviving Spouses and Children may be eligible to receive a one-time death payment of $255 from the Social Security Administration to be applied to funeral costs. To apply for this payment, contact the Social Security Administration at 1-800-722-1213. 

    • County Assistance is available in the state of Iowa with proof of residence and financial need. For more information and help applying, contact the Iowa Department of Human Services at 800-972-2017. 

    • Check with your local county medical examiner’s office or the State Medical Examiner for information on releasing the body to the county or state to be buried or cremated in cases where the relative cannot afford any funeral costs. If the body is cremated, you may be able to claim the ashes for free. The Iowa State Medical Examiner can be contacted at 515-725-1400.

Resources: 

  • For guidance on funeral shopping, see the FTC’s article series called Shopping for Funeral Services with the links to all seven articles found at the bottom of the page. 

  • To file a complaint about a bill received for a funeral, cemetery, cremation, prepaid funeral/service, funeral home, or cemetery merchandise, contact the Iowa Insurance Division Securities Bureau at information.services@iowa.gov

 

□ Handling the Estate 

Managing the estate of a deceased loved one can be a lengthy and difficult process. It is important to first locate the will and assigned executor of the will. While it is not legally necessary, consider hiring a trusts and estates attorney who can help to navigate the process, distribute assets, and hit specified deadlines. In addition, consider contacting the loved one’s tax preparer or hiring one in case the estate needs to file a tax return. Following those steps, you will need to take the will to a city or county probate office, which is the legal process of executing a will. Additional steps will need to be taken, including locating and listing assets as well as debts. 

 

 

Sitemap
© 2020 State of Iowa Office of the Attorney General. All rights reserved.