Success Story of the Month – “If I Don’t Get a Death Certificate, It May Kill Me!”

Client’s late husband (he died last month) has an estate that predominately consists of an individual account, a life insurance policy and a retirement account.  Client was named as a beneficiary of the retirement account and the life insurance policy.  She was also the sole beneficiary and executor of her husband’s Will.  Since the individual account had no beneficiary designation, it is necessary for her to probate the Will so that the bank would allow her to transfer funds to herself (banks and other financial institutions generally require letters testamentary, which are usually received when the court admits the Will to probate – in other words, the court says the Will is valid).  Client has very little funds and needs money quickly to be able to live.  She doesn’t think she can wait for a court order.  Usually it doesn’t take long to get the proceeds of a life insurance policy or a retirement account since generally all that is needed is a death certificate and perhaps the completion of a form.  However, in this case, client’s late husband died under unusual circumstances – he choked and immediately died after getting his head stuck in the rails on his bed that prevented him from falling out of the bed (the deceased was disabled).  Normally, it only takes a couple of weeks to get a death certificate.  However, when death has resulted from unusual circumstances as in this case, the medical examiner has to do a thorough investigation (i.e. autopsy, etc.) to determine the cause of death and such examination could take several months.  Client can’t wait as she needs money to live on as soon as possible.  So how do you solve the problem? After finding out from the Bureau of Vital Statistics that a death certificate was being held up by the Medical Examiner’s office, we contacted the Medical Examiner’s office who told us funeral homes can issue a “Pending Death Certificate”.  Client requested the “Pending Death Certificate” and has already received some proceeds from the retirement account (although the life insurance company would likely delay payment of the policy pending the investigation) so she can continue to live without stress – which makes this our success story of the month.

Simple planning could have been done to prevent this situation, including some planning even without legal documents.  It can be as easy as putting more funds in the joint account, changing husband’s individual account to a joint account or simply giving signing rights only on the individual account (powers of attorney terminate upon death).  However, many possibilities should be discussed (what if the deceased didn’t trust his wife or if she had creditor problems or she was disabled or if he was concerned she might remarry).  Bottom line, planning can be simple for you to prevent future problems.  You don’t have to feel like waiting for a death certificate might kill you!

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