After a loved one passes away, the red tape adds to the grief


Last spring, my family experienced three dramatic deaths in quick succession: my brother-in-law died of a late-diagnosed cancer, my husband, Scott, died of another late-diagnosed cancer, and my mother passed away at age 100.

The last thing you want to deal with when you’re caught up in grief is red tape. It’s frustrating and exhausting and emotionally crushing. And yet it is inevitable.

My family thought our financial affairs were settled. We had wills and beneficiaries were listed there and on all financial accounts. Many people don’t, which makes the red tape after death so much worse. Yet we endured months of maddening experiences with banks, insurance companies, employers, and the Social Security Administration, among others.

Here are some of the most aggravating roadblocks:

Facial recognition, voice recognition, and fingerprint recognition speed up access when someone is alive, but present a huge barrier to survivors trying to wind down accounts. When I log into my late husband Scott’s password manager and investment accounts, access codes are sent to his phone. Despite many attempts, I find that I cannot change that phone number. This means that Scott’s phone must remain 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. That card belongs only to the person who applied for the bill. Credit card companies are promptly notified by the Social Security Administration of a death and will freeze a survivor’s ability to view the bill online. Providing a paper statement might seem logical, but our bank representative told me, “Once you’ve chosen to receive statements online, it’s our policy that you can’t go back to paper statements.” It took a full six months of begging the bank’s “deceased management team” (real name) to get statements for the months after Scott’s death. And it wasn’t easy to cancel some of the recurring charges.

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At Best Buy, a customer service representative told me to take 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, death certificate in hand, and got my money back.

Personal visits are not recommended

When your frustration level rises after marathon sessions have been put on hold, you may be tempted to go to the bank or insurance office in person. Do not. At one bank, an employee wouldn’t change my address when I arrived, and directed me to the financial institution’s website.

Twice I personally visited a Social Security office to try and change the address Scott’s Medicare bills were sent to after my death since I moved – and now I paid those bills. A change of address could not be done personally after a death, I was told; use his online account. But it’s the only account that isn’t in its password manager and it has a unique username that I don’t know. I hope his medical bills, which are coming at a snail’s pace, all come before the postal service stops forwarding his mail to our old address.

I bought several copies of Scott’s death certificate, but I wasn’t prepared for how companies string together requests for other documents. Scott’s old employer reclaimed his monthly pension without notice, then refused to tell me what documents other than the death certificate were needed. The company had to look into Scott’s retirement wishes, it said.

Scott had only had two choices: a higher pension that ended upon his death or a lower pension that continued for me. The dollar amount of the checks showed that he had chosen the lower pension.

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

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

Expedia needed a death certificate and 30 days to stop sending Scott emails. I couldn’t just unsubscribe him because he had once booked a flight through Expedia, as the small print of the online travel agency showed.

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

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He spent most of his time in the banker’s office, waiting while he tried to get the bank’s asset manager to answer the phone. He was on hold for 43 minutes while I sat there. Removing Scott’s name took a few minutes. The banker hung up without asking for the credit card associated with that account and had to call back. We waited another 18 minutes for the phone to be answered.

My return appointment for the beneficiaries took another hour while I sat in that booth.

Many of these red tape issues are made worse because they often require phone calls with endless hold times. When reps finally connect, they invariably start with the rote and insincere “sorry for your loss” scripts.

Grief is hard enough as it is. Dealing with technical barriers and nonsensical policies turn the months after a death into a second career of aggravating phone calls, emails, and visits.

How to reduce these irritations

To minimize these frustrations, here are a few suggestions learned the hard way:

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

2. Make sure you have a requested credit card in your name.

3. Get a password manager to store all your usernames and passwords and make sure your executor knows your master password. If you have some accounts that aren’t included in a password manager, make sure your executor knows what they are (and also don’t forget to update each list in case you change them frequently).

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

5. Now do an inventory and make sure you have birth and marriage certificates, adoption or divorce papers, and social security cards. After many 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. Getting access to it can be a lengthy process, especially if your loved one has lost the key. Even with a key, if family members suddenly need a loved one’s medical power of attorney outside of bank hours, for example, they’re out of luck.

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