What to Do First

Collect Important Papers

You may have to search for some of them. Check file cabinets, desks, offices and even odd places — kitchen drawers, closet shelves and cartons tucked away in the garage. While it might be tempting to throw things out, in hopes of making the search less overwhelming — don’t. You can’t be sure what papers might prove to be important later on. It may be helpful to ask someone you trust to help you go through the deceased’s papers, if only for support during this painful task.

For access to other documents, you may need court permission. In some states, for example, safe deposit boxes are sealed when someone dies. If this happens, you will need a court order to have the contents released.

Here’s a list of some of the documents you will need:

Copies of the Death Certificate

Generally, you need to provide a copy of the death certificate every time you make a claim for benefits. You can get certified copies of the death certificate through your funeral director or from the county health department. Most likely, there will be a charge for each certified copy. Obtain 10 to 12 copies initially, but you may need more later on.

Copies of all Insurance Policies

If you can’t find them, call your agent or contact the insurance company directly.

Copies of Your Marriage License

If you are the husband or wife of the deceased, you need a copy of your marriage certificate to apply for certain benefits. You can usually get copies from the county clerk where your marriage license was issued.

Copies of Children’s Birth Certificates

If the deceased had any dependent children, you’ll need to obtain their birth certificates to establish claims for certain Social Security benefits. Copies are available from the public health office of the state or county where the child was born.

The Will

The deceased’s lawyer may have the will. Or, it may be in a safe deposit box or filed with other personal papers. You need the original will, which is the one signed by the deceased and witnesses. Copies of wills are almost never acceptable.

A Copy of Veterans’ Discharge Papers

You will need a copy of a certificate of honorable discharge to claim any veterans’ benefits. The certificate should show the branch of service, dates of service and rank. If you can’t find a copy of the discharge, you may obtain one by completing Standard Form 180 (SF180). You can complete this form online at www.archives.gov/veterans/evetrecs/ and clicking "Request Military Records."

Alternatively, you may call 314 801-0800, fax 314 801-9195, or write to request Standard Form 180. Written requests should be directed to the National Personnel Records Center (Military), 9700 Page Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63132-5100.

Any property whose title is in the names of both the deceased and another person as joint tenants with right of survivorship automatically passes to the co-owner.

You should also have available your own Social Security number, as well as the Social Security numbers of the deceased, the spouse (if other than yourself) and any dependent children. Look for the numbers you need on past tax returns, in employment records or with other personal papers.

Keep all documents organized, perhaps by filing each in a separate manila folder. If you are concerned that any documents will get lost, make copies. You should also keep all incoming mail so bills and checks won’t get lost. Don’t throw anything away until you have a chance to go through it. Be on guard for unordered merchandise or bills for services never performed. Some scam artists take advantage of the recently bereaved in the hope that they will pay phony bills without investigating. It’s a good idea to ask for itemized bills from doctors and lawyers. Avoid accepting bills “For Services Rendered” only.

Remember that this is an emotional time when your concentration and memory may not be at their best. Keep records of all outgoing mail, particularly if it’s business related.

Are You a Beneficiary? Take the First Step...

If you have questions or need help getting started, call 800 842-2252 and choose Beneficiary Services from the menu.

Building your legacy

© 2014 and prior years, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association - College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF), New York, NY 10017