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After someone dies: death certificates, bureaucracy and grief


In quick succession last spring, my family experienced three serious deaths: My brother-in-law died of a late-diagnosed cancer, my husband, Scott, died of another late-diagnosed cancer, and my mother died at the age of 100.

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

My family thought that our finances were organized. We had wills and beneficiaries were listed there and on all financial accounts. Many do not, which makes the red tape after death that much worse. But still, we’ve endured months of terrible 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 increase access when someone is alive, but pose huge barriers to survivors trying to terminate 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 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. That card belongs only to the person who applied for the account. Credit card companies are quickly notified of 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 the bank representative told me, “Once you’ve chosen to get online statements, our policy is that you cannot go back to paper statements.” It took six full months of begging the bank’s “Deceased Management Team” (actual name) to be sent statements for the months following Scott’s death. And it wasn’t easy to cancel some recurring charges.

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At Best Buy, a customer service representative said I would have 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 went dressed normally, with a death certificate in hand, and got my money back.

Personal visits are discouraged

When frustration levels rise after marathon sessions on hold, you may be tempted to visit your bank or insurance office in person. Do not do it. In one bank, an employee would not change the 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 post-death Medicare bills were sent since I had moved – and now paid those bills. A change of address could not be done in person after a death, I was told; use his online account. But that’s the one account that’s not in his 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 arrive before the postal service stops forwarding his mail to our old address.

I bought several copies of Scott’s death certificate, but I was unprepared for how companies make requests for other documents. Scott’s longtime employer demanded back his monthly pension without notice, then refused to tell me what documents it required other than the death certificate. The company needed to investigate Scott’s retirement wishes, it said.

Scott had only had two choices: a higher pension that ended with his death or a lower pension that continued for me. From the dollar amount on 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 after that, our marriage license. Two weeks after that, she asked for the original Social Security card I applied for at age 16. A friend, a retired district judge, pointed out that companies only have 30 days to resolve such issues. I called and told the representative that this limit was exceeded. Amazingly, she called the next day and said everything was resolved.

Yet 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 required a death certificate and 30 days to stop sending Scott emails. I couldn’t just unsubscribe him because he had once 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 one official to remove Scott’s name from our joint checking and savings accounts, and another to change the beneficiary on that account. I was told to schedule 90 minutes for the first visit. (It took two hours.)

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Most of the time he sat in the banker’s cubicle and waited while he tried to get the bank’s estate management team to answer the phone. He waited on hold for 43 minutes while I sat there. It took a few minutes to delete Scott’s name. The banker hung up without asking about 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 recipients took another hour to sit in that cubicle.

Many of these red tape issues become more annoying as they often require phone calls with endless wait times on hold. When reps finally connect, they invariably launch into insincere “sorry for the loss” scripts.

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

How to reduce these irritations

To minimize these frustrations, here are some 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 credit card you applied for in your name.

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

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

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

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

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