After the death of a loved one, the executor or surviving family members should review the deceased person's papers to see if there are any benefits that may be available to the survivors. The surviving family members may be able to receive a pension, veterans benefits, union benefits, or other funds to which the deceased person was entitled. This article discusses claiming these types of benefits.
To learn about claiming life insurance, annuity proceeds, or Social Security benefits, see Nolo's article How Beneficiaries Can Claim Life Insurance and Social Security Benefits.
The deceased person may have been entitled to pension benefits from a private company, government agency, or union. Some pensions end at death, but many pensions provide for payments to a surviving spouse or dependent children. Survivors may be entitled to part of the payments the person would have received. (Pensions for government employees are often generous when it comes to survivors benefits.) It all depends on the terms of the particular plan and choices the deceased person may have made years ago. It is worthwhile to dig up the paperwork to check the history of the elections the deceased person made, to make sure survivors are getting what they're entitled to. (If you want to learn more about making sure your survivors continue to receive your pension, check out Nolo's article Help Your Family Claim Retirement Benefits.)
Most veterans' families are not entitled to any monetary benefits, but here are a few programs that may provide some help.
Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits. A veteran's surviving spouse (and children under age 18) may be entitled to DIC payments if the deceased veteran:
Wartime service pension. A veteran's surviving spouse or unmarried child whose annual income is under certain very low limits may qualify for a pension at the veteran's death. The veteran must have:
Burial allowance. In limited circumstances, survivors may be eligible for reimbursement of some costs paid for a veteran's burial or funeral if the expenses were not reimbursed from another source and any of the following are true:
To apply for these benefits, you'll need copies of the veteran's discharge papers, marriage certificate, and other basic information. For more information, contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs at 800-827-1000 or visit its website at www.va.gov. For more information on benefits that are available to veterans' survivors, get Social Security, Medicare & Government Pensions, by Joseph Matthews, with Dorothy Matthews Berman (Nolo).
If the deceased person was working up until the time of death, a surviving spouse or other relative can probably claim the final amount due from the employer. The amount should include the value of any unused vacation days and may or may not include pay for unused sick days.
Send a letter to the former employer asking about unpaid wages and commissions, vacation and sick leave, bonuses, reimbursement for unpaid expenses, pensions, group life insurance, retirement funds, stock ownership, or medical benefits. Provide the deceased's name, Social Security number, date of death, and dates of employment (if you know them), and ask for any information the employer has on these benefits. Check your state law to find out whether your state has specific procedures for requesting unpaid wages.
If the estate goes through the regular probate process (see Nolo's article How the Probate Process Works: Information for Executors), dependent family members can ask the probate court for a "family allowance." This is primarily cash that is quickly released from the estate (and is not available to creditors) to help with short-term living expenses. The amount available depends on state law, and generally ranges from a few thousand dollars to several tens of thousands.
Family members may be entitled to some other death benefits, depending on the circumstances of the deceased's life, health, and employment. Some of these are easy to overlook, so run down the list and see if any of them might apply to your situation.
Workers' compensation. If the deceased person had been receiving workers' compensation payments because of a work-related injury, contact the insurance company that paid the benefits and make sure all benefits due the deceased person were paid. If the death occurred on the job or because of a work-related injury or illness, family members who depended on the deceased person for support will likely qualify for workers' compensation death benefits. Because large sums of money may be involved, you'll almost certainly want to see a workers' comp lawyer. You can use Nolo's Lawyer Directory to find an experienced workers' compensation attorney in your area.
State disability benefits. If the deceased person was receiving disability benefits from the state, notify the state agency in charge of the benefits. Make sure all payments were made, up to the date of death.
Federal employment benefits. If the deceased person worked for the federal government, benefits may be available to the family or to a beneficiary. Contact the agency for which the person worked.
Railroad Retirement Act benefits. If the person worked for a railroad and was covered by the federal Railroad Retirement Act, survivors may be eligible for benefits. For information, contact the closest Railroad Retirement Board or check out the RRB website at www.rrb.gov.
Unions. Although it's rare, some unions provide death benefits. Family members should contact the union to find out whether any benefits are available.
Benefits from health insurance. Some health insurance policies offer limited coverage for funeral expenses. To find out, call the deceased person's health insurance provider or, if the policy was obtained through a job or membership in an organization, contact the person in charge of administering the program there.
Lawsuits for wrongful death. If the deceased person was killed intentionally or in an accident, survivors may be able to get sizable compensation to help make up the lost income the deceased person would have provided to the family. To get this compensation, survivors must file what's called a "wrongful death" lawsuit. Family members may win such a lawsuit if the death was caused by, for example, an incompetent doctor, a careless driver, someone committing a crime, or a defective product, such as a tire that blew out on a highway. These lawsuits must be filed within a certain period after the death, and it can be important to gather evidence right away. (Learn more in Nolo's article Wrongful Death Claims: An Overview.)
For more information about the different benefits that may be available to a loved one's survivors -- and all facets of settling an estate -- see The Executor's Guide: Settling A Loved One's Estate or Trust, by Mary Randolph, J.D. (Nolo).