Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)

Some advice if you are confused when a loved one dies


You just faced the most difficult time of your life and feel you must make decisions soon. This may be so, but some decisions are immediate and others can be deferred. Remember to distinguis­h what must be done now, soon, and later. If your husband, wife, mother, father, child or sibling dies you need to know your rights and responsibi­lities and what to do next. Here are some first things to know.

• Funeral arrangemen­ts. There may be a prepaid burial reserve. If so this can make it much easier to navigate the many early decisions that need to be made. Your funeral director can help. Funeral directors are often helpful both in notifying Social Security, so you do not have to, and in providing death certificat­es >> as many as you need to handle an estate, whether probate or non-probate, and you may need several. If there is a religious service your pastor can help too.

• The will might need to be probated — or maybe not. Probate involves the executor taking the will to the Register of Wills and recording it to establish an estate. If you are a spouse and everything was titled jointly and you were named beneficiar­y of all life insurance and retirement accounts, it might not be necessary to probate. If you are not sure, consult an elder law or estate attorney for answers. Our office advises on this frequently. If probate is needed an attorney can lead you through the step by step process and also in many cases help you to save money and avoid later problems.

• Social Security — if you are a spouse. If your husband or wife passes and his or her Social Security was higher than yours, the net effect will likely be that you will ultimately receive the same monthly benefit that he or she would have received. If your benefit was higher, it will stay the same. There is also a small $255 death benefit you may be able to claim.

• Bank accounts. You might delay closing a bank account that is titled only in the decedent’s name. Automatic deductions could be coming from the account. These need to be addressed. Also, if you close the account that receives Social Security checks too soon, the government might reverse the payment for the month of death giving a negative balance.

• Tax advice. Elder law and estate planning attorneys are accustomed to giving advice and assisting on whether taxes are due including inheritanc­e tax.

• Creditors. If you are the closest surviving relative of the decedent that does not necessaril­y mean you are responsibl­e for that

person’s bills. The bills will follow the estate of the deceased person and Pennsylvan­ia and other states have specific rules concerning how bills are to be paid regarding an “insolvent estate,” that is, one where bills are higher than assets. There is an order of distributi­on. In Pennsylvan­ia at

the very top are costs of administra­tion such as filing fees, executor’s fee and attorney’s fee and payment of funeral bills. After this comes medical bills (including reimbursem­ent for payments made from Medicaid within six months of passing) then older medical bills and other debt. Do not pay credit card bills first. Credit card bills are unsecured debt and are on the bottom of the pile. If there is secured debt, such

as a loan on a car, the creditor could take the vehicle. If the decedent was over 65 years old and receiving Medicaid (Medical Assistance) there may be a claim under Estate Recovery with the state government and you need to notify the government of his or her passing and provide relevant details.

• Now, soon and later. Final arrangemen­ts and memorial services fit the category “now.” Bills and

related issues might fit the “now” category or “soon” as in the first one to two or three months depending. Sale of the residence and of other real estate might fit the “soon” category although sales lately have been brisk so settlement­s might be proceeding faster than previously. Clean out can be a major considerat­ion and there is help there, too. Major life decisions such as whether you should move are typically

reserved for the “later” category. There is a frequently cited comment that survivors might delay for a year following a catastroph­ic event before making a critical decision.

Janet Colliton, Esq. is a Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation and limits her practice to elder law, retirement, life care, special needs,

and estate planning and administra­tion with offices at 790 East Market St., Ste. 250, West Chester, 610-436-6674, colliton@collitonla­w. com. She is a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and Pennsylvan­ia Associatio­n of Elder Law Attorneys and, with Jeffrey Jones, CSA, co-founder of Life Transition Services, LLC, a service for families with long term care needs.

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