When the Death of a Loved One Occurs

November 1, 2010
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When the death of a loved one occurs, legal, financial and emotional issues will arise and people cope with the loss of a loved one in many ways. For some, the experience may lead to personal growth, even though it is a difficult and trying time. There is no right way of coping with death. The way a person grieves depends on the personality of that person and the relationship with the person who has died. How a person copes with grief is affected by the person’s cultural and religious background, coping skills, mental history, support systems, and the person’s social and financial status.

The terms grief, bereavement, and mourning are often used in place of each other, but they have different meanings.

Grief is the normal process of reacting to the loss. Grief reactions may be felt in response to physical losses (for example, a death) or in response to symbolic or social losses (for example, divorce or loss of a job). Each type of loss means the person has had something taken away. Grief may be experienced as a mental, physical, social, or emotional reaction. Mental reactions can include anger, guilt, anxiety, sadness, and despair. Physical reactions can include sleeping problems, changes in appetite, physical problems, or illness. Social reactions can include feelings about taking care of others in the family, seeing family or friends, or returning to work. As with bereavement, grief processes depend on the relationship with the person who died, the situation surrounding the death, and the person’s attachment to the person who died. Grief may be described as the presence of physical problems, constant thoughts of the person who died, guilt, hostility, and a change in the way one normally acts.

Bereavement is the period after a loss during which grief is experienced and mourning occurs. The time spent in a period of bereavement depends on how attached the person was to the person who died, and how much time was spent anticipating the loss.

Mourning is the process by which people adapt to a loss. Mourning is also influenced by cultural customs, rituals, and society’s rules for coping with loss.

Finding support after a loss:

Turn to friends and family members – Now is the time to lean on the people who care about you, even if you take pride in being strong and self-sufficient. Draws loved ones closer, rather than avoiding them, and accept the assistance that’s offered. Oftentimes, people want to help but don’t know how, so tell them what you need – whether it’s a shoulder to cry on or help with funeral arrangements.

Draw comfort from your faith – If you follow a religious tradition, embrace the comfort its mourning rituals can provide. Spiritual activities that are meaningful to you – such as praying, meditating, or going to church – can offer solace. If you’re questioning your faith in the wake of the loss, talk to a clergy member or others in your religious community.

Join a support group – Grief can feel very lonely, even when you have loved ones around. Sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help. To find a bereavement support group in your area, contact local hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, and counseling centers.

Talk to a therapist or grief counselor – If your grief feels like too much to bear, call a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling. An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.

Dealing with the practical issues:

The time immediately following the death of a loved one can be overwhelming, with grief and bereavement complicated by a seemingly endless number of tasks. The immediate days following the death will be focused on the funeral or memorial service arrangements. Soon after, however, various financial legal and everyday issues must be addressed. Many people find it very difficult to be sure they have taken care of everything. The following is a list of tasks that are likely to need attention:

Call the funeral home you have selected. If you have not chosen a funeral home ahead of time, the New York State Funeral Directors’ Association can give you information on funeral homes in your area and can be reached at 518-452-8230, or ask a friend, family member, or clergy for a reference to a local funeral home. It is important to keep accurate records regarding funeral and other expenses. After the estate is opened, the family members may be entitled to reimbursement from the estate.

Locate the original Last Will and Testament and/or Trust and place in safe-keeping. Do not unstaple any documents. Ascertain who the nominated Executor named in the Will is.

If your loved one was a veteran, you may be able to get assistance with the funeral, burial plot, or other benefits. For information on benefits call the Veterans Administration at 800-827-1000. Also, the phone number for your local Veterans Agency is usually listed under Town Offices. You will need a copy of your loved one’s discharge papers.

Obtain 10-15 copies of the death certificate. Your funeral director should be able to provide you with these or they can be obtained at your town or city hall at a later date. Most insurance companies and asset holders require Death Certificates when liquidating or transferring assets after estate has been opened.

If your loved one was receiving Social Security benefits, notify your local Social Security office or call 800-772-1213 and provide them with the date of death, since these benefits will stop. Overpayments will result in a difficult process of repayment. If you are a surviving spouse, ask about your eligibility for increased benefits. Also, check on benefits that any minor children may be entitled to receive.

Gather financial records and statements for all accounts including banks, investments companies, life insurance and annuity companies, etc. Also determine whether there are joint owners or beneficiaries on each of the accounts. Moreover, establish whether there are any outstanding debts of the decedent that need to be resolved.

Locate any safe deposit box (es). Unless you are a joint owner of the safe deposit box, the only contents accessible are the burial instructions and the decedent’s Last Will and Testament, if any. All other contents must remain in the box until you are appointed as a personal representative. You may need an appointment to open the boxes. Contact the bank and speak with the safe deposit box attendant about the bank’s procedures. It is probable that two bank officers will accompany you while an inventory is made of the box. If there is an original Last Will and Testament/Trust Agreement in the box, the bank will automatically send it directly to the Probate Court. Please ask the bank to make a copy of the Will/Trust and forward a copy to your attorney.

Seek the advice of an attorney experienced in probate and estate/trust administration. While certain assets will pass “outside” of probate and may not require the assistance of a law firm, many assets will require court intervention. The attorney experienced in these matters will be able to guide the nominated executor. He or she should be sure to bring the original Will and death certificates, financial records and a listing of the family members, both deceased and surviving.

Seek the advice of a certified public accountant about filing the deceased’s income tax return for the year of the death. Keep monthly bank statements on all individual and joint accounts that show the account balance on the day of death, since you will need this information for the probate petition and estate tax return, if necessary.

Contact the health insurance company or employer regarding terminating coverage for the deceased while continuing coverage for others covered through the policy

Investigate if your loved one was entitled to any union death benefits

Return credit cards of the deceased with a certified copy of the death certificate, or notify the credit card company if you, as the survivor, want to retain use of the card.

Make sure that important bills, such as mortgage payments and utilities continue to be paid.

Have Post Office Hold Mail

Notify Attending Physician

Cancel or rearrange home deliveries

Arrange for care of pets, if any

Documents you may need to complete the tasks:

Death Certificates (10 – 15 certified copies)

Social Security Card

Marriage Certificate

Birth Certificate

Birth Certificate for each child, if applicable

Insurance Policies

Deed and Titles to Property

Stock Certificates

Bank Books

Honorable Discharge Papers for a Veteran and/or V.A. Claim Number

Recent Income Tax Forms and W-2 Forms

Automobile Title and Registration Papers

Loan and Installment Payment Books and/or Contracts

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