Helping Your Widowed Parent With Legal and Financial Issues

A checklist for helping a surviving parent get organized.

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1. Find assets.
Often, just one spouse manages most of a couple's finances. Be sure that your surviving parent knows where important assets are located. Over time, you may find it helpful to make a master list of bank and brokerage accounts, retirement plans, insurance policies, real estate, items in safe deposit boxes, and other significant assets. Make note of sizeable debts as well.

2. Collect insurance.
Find out whether your surviving parent is the beneficiary of a life insurance policy and, if so, contact the insurance company and file a claim for benefits. This is one of the first things you can do to ensure there's enough cash on hand.

3. Apply for benefits.
Helping your parent apply for Social Security benefits should be near the top of your list of things to do. Contact the Social Security Administration (www.ssa.gov) for information about survivor's benefits. In addition, investigate other benefits to which your parent may be entitled, including pension, veterans, or other employment-related payouts.

4. Change title to jointly owned assets.
If your parents owned property together -- as joint tenants or in another form of joint ownership -- the survivor should change the title document to show that he or she now owns the property alone. This will make it easier for your surviving parent to manage the property -- and for you to wrap up your surviving parent's affairs when the time comes. Check title documents for real estate, vehicles, bank or brokerage accounts, and other significant assets to see whether you need to update ownership records.

5. Update will and trusts.
Losing a mate will more than likely cause your parent to reevaluate his or her own plans for leaving property at death. If your surviving parent has a will or living trust, you should eventually have him or her review it and change it, if necessary, to reflect your parent's current life circumstances and wishes. Also take a look at who is named as beneficiary of retirement plans and any other major assets that will pass outside the will or trust.

6. Take steps to avoid probate court.
When changing title documents and reviewing your surviving parent's estate plan, you should consider whether any part of the estate will be subject to probate when he or she dies. Simple probate avoidance methods could save a bundle of time and money -- for example, your parent might name pay-on-death beneficiaries for a bank or brokerage accounts that used to be jointly owned.

7. Update insurance policies.
If your deceased parent is still named as a beneficiary on insurance policies, those policies will need to be modified, cashed out, or canceled, depending on your parent's current needs and wishes.

8. Make a health care directive (living will).
If your parent hasn't already prepared a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care, now is the time. These important documents will allow your parent to set out health care wishes and name a trusted person -- perhaps you -- to oversee his or her care and make medical decisions if that ever becomes necessary. Making health care documents can also open the door to discussing your parent's feelings about organ donation, burial or cremation, and other final arrangements.For more information, seeHelping a Loved One Make a Power of Attorney.

9. Make a financial power of attorney.
This document lets your parent name someone to handle financial matters -- from writing monthly checks to managing investments -- if he or she ever becomes incapacitated and unable to take care of things alone. Without this document in hand, you or other loved ones would most likely have to go to court to get the necessary authority. For more information, see Helping an Elder Make a Power of Attorney.

10. Organize documents.
A world of careful planning won't do any good if you can't find important paperwork when you need it. Do what you can to help your mom or dad set up a good filing system. Here are some critical things to keep track of:

  • will, trust, and other estate planning documents
  • powers of attorney
  • bank and brokerage account statements
  • retirement plan statements
  • government benefit paperwork
  • insurance policies
  • business records
  • tax returns
  • credit card and debt information
  • secured places, such as a safe or safe deposit box
  • email accounts and passwords
  • property records for real estate, cars, and other major assets.
Where to Get Help

These resources can help you with the tasks described in this checklist:

The Executor's Guide: Settling a Love One's Estate or Trust, by Mary Randolph (Nolo), offers extensive legal and practical guidance to help you wrap up the affairs of a loved one who has died. It also explains the steps executors can take before someone dies, to help them get property and paperwork in order.

Eight Ways to Avoid Probate, by Mary Randolph, demystifies the strategies you can use to keep property from ending up in probate court after a loved one's death.

Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To, by Melanie Cullen with Shae Irving (Nolo), is a complete system for gathering and storing important documents, plans, and wishes. From wills to insurance policies to passwords, it lets you pull all your important records together in an easy-to-use format.

 

by: , J.D.

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