After someone dies: death certificates, bureaucracy and bereavement

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Quickly last spring, my family experienced three heartbreaking deaths: my brother-in-law died of late-diagnosed cancer, my husband, Scott, died of another late-diagnosed cancer, and my mother died at the age of 100 years.

The last thing you want to deal with when you’re overwhelmed with grief is bureaucracy. It’s frustrating and exhausting and emotionally overwhelming. And yet it is unavoidable.

My family thought our financial affairs were organized. We had wills and the beneficiaries were listed in them and in all the financial accounts. Many people don’t, which further aggravates bureaucracy after death. But even so, we endured months of infuriating experiences with banks, insurance companies, employers, and the Social Security administration, among others.

Here are some of the most aggravating obstacles:

Facial recognition, voice recognition, and fingerprint recognition speed up access when someone is alive, but present huge hurdles for survivors trying to shut down their accounts. When I log into my late husband Scott’s password manager and investment accounts, the passcodes are sent to his phone. Despite many tries, I find that I cannot change this phone number. That means keeping Scott’s phone active, an unnecessary expense.

If you think you and your spouse share a credit card, because each of you has a card with your name on it and the same account number, guess again. This card belongs only to the person who applied for the account. Credit card companies are quickly alerted to a death by the Social Security Administration and will freeze a survivor’s ability to view the account online. Providing a paper statement seems logical, but our bank representative told me, “Once you choose to get online statements, our policy is that you cannot revert to paper statements.” It took a full six months to beg the “deceased management team” of the bank (real name) to receive statements in the mail for the months following Scott’s death. And it was not easy to cancel some recurring charges.

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At Best Buy, a customer service representative told me that I had to bring a death certificate to a Best Buy store to cancel a Geek Squad subscription. I considered dressing in black with a veil but dressed normally, with a death certificate in hand, and got the refund.

Personal visits are discouraged

When your frustration level rises after pending marathon sessions, you might be tempted to go to the bank or insurance office in person. Don’t. At a bank, an employee refused to change my address when I arrived and referred me to the financial institution’s website.

I visited a Social Security office in person twice to try to change the address where Scott’s death health insurance bills were sent since I moved – and I was now paying those invoices. A change of address could not be done in person after a death, I was told; use their online account. But that’s the only account that’s not in his password manager and he has a unique username that I don’t know. I hope his medical bills, arriving at a snail’s pace, all arrive before the postal service stops forwarding mail to our old address.

I purchased several copies of Scott’s death certificate, but was unprepared for the way companies keep asking for other documents. Scott’s longtime employer clawed back his monthly pension without notice, then refused to tell me what documents he required other than the death certificate. The company needed to investigate Scott’s retirement wishes, she said.

Scott had only two choices: a higher pension that ended with his death or a lower pension that continued with me. From the dollar amount of the checks, it was obvious that he had chosen the lower pension.

Two weeks after receiving the death certificate, the company representative requested Scott’s birth certificate. Two weeks later, our marriage license. Two weeks later, she asked for the original Social Security card that I applied for when I was 16. A friend, a retired district judge, pointed out that companies only have 30 days to resolve such issues. I called and told the rep that this limit had been exceeded. Surprisingly, she called the next day and said everything was resolved.

Yet she insisted on sending the three months of pension payments withheld to my old address, even though I had provided proof of my new address weeks earlier.

Expedia demanded a death certificate and 30 days to stop emailing Scott. I couldn’t just unsubscribe him because he had already been booked on a flight through Expedia, the online travel agency’s fine print revealed.

At our bank, I had to make an appointment with an official to remove Scott’s name from our joint checking and savings accounts, and another to change the beneficiaries of that account. I was told to allow 90 minutes for the first visit. (It took two hours.)

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Most of the time I was sitting in the banker’s office, waiting while he tried to get the bank’s property management group to answer the phone. He waited 43 minutes while I sat there. Deleting Scott’s name took a few minutes. The banker hung up without asking about the credit card linked to this account and had to call back. We waited another 18 minutes for the phone to answer.

My return appointment for recipients took an extra hour sitting in that booth.

Many of these paperwork issues are made more infuriating because they often require phone calls with endless waits on hold. When reps finally log in, they invariably start with the “sorry for your loss” scripts off the cuff and insincerely.

Grieving is hard enough. Dealing with technological barriers and absurd policies turns the months following a death into a second career of aggravating phone calls, emails and visits.

How to reduce these irritations

To minimize those frustrations, here are some learned the hard way suggestions:

1. Keep an up-to-date list of recurring credit card charges, organized by card.

2. Make sure you have a credit card that you applied for in your name.

3. Get a password manager to keep track of all your usernames and passwords and make sure your executor knows your master password. If you have accounts that aren’t included in a password manager, make sure your enforcer knows what they are (and don’t forget to update any list in case you change them periodically) .

4. Buy at least six copies of the death certificate. Some companies allow you to email copies, but others require the physical certificate.

5. Take inventory now and make sure you have birth and marriage certificates, adoption or divorce papers, and social security cards. After several decades of marriage and multiple moves, some of these documents may have been lost. It can take weeks to get copies from the various agencies.

6. Do not put the will or other important documents in a safe. Accessing it can be a long process, especially if your loved one has misplaced the key. Even with a key, if family members suddenly need to get a loved one’s medical power of attorney outside of bank hours, for example, they’re out of luck.

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