Within the First Month

Choose an Attorney

Not every survivor needs an attorney, but a good probate lawyer can solve many problems and handle many headaches more easily than you can alone. A probate lawyer can answer such questions as:

  • My husband’s safe deposit box is in his name only. How do I get our property out of it?
  • Do I owe any state or inheritance tax?
  • What rights do creditors have to the estate of the deceased?

You may know an experienced probate lawyer. If not, try to get a referral from a reliable source, such as a lawyer who does not specialize in probate matters for example. Or call the local probate court for a listing of lawyers who handle probate matters.

It pays to think carefully before you hire a lawyer. Be sure to discuss the lawyer’s fees. If you can’t afford the cost, but feel you need a lawyer’s help, check your local phone book to find out if free legal services are available where you live. You can also try local law schools or local bar associations.

Another good source of information is the American Bar Association website. The site contains a state-by-state directory of lawyer referral programs and a directory of pro bono programs for those who can’t afford to pay for legal services.

In general, the more complicated the estate, the higher the lawyer’s fees. However, the long-term savings and peace of mind that a good probate lawyer will provide may be worth the expense.

Consider the Will

If there is a will, the deceased’s lawyer, your lawyer or you should file a petition with a local probate court to admit the will to probate. “Probate,” the legal process of proving the validity of a will before an estate can be distributed to the rightful heirs, involves the court appointing an executor or personal representative of the estate. The executor — who is almost always named in the will — oversees the distribution of the deceased’s assets, pays any debts or taxes, and complies with any legal and accounting requirements.

Not all assets need to pass through probate. For example, 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. Proceeds from life insurance policies, retirement annuities, Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), etc., are paid directly to beneficiaries once paperwork is complete.

Dying without leaving a will is called dying “intestate.” Here the estate is distributed according to state law. Your local probate court should be able to explain the necessary procedures. If there is no will, or if the original will can’t be found, a lawyer’s help may be invaluable.

Apply for Benefits

You can claim survivor benefits directly or through a lawyer. In some states, the probate lawyer receives a percentage of the value of an estate to settle all claims.

You can decide to have your lawyer submit all claims for you. But, if not, how would you approach applying for benefits due you?

Life Insurance

You should be aware of the four types of life insurance available when assessing the deceased’s coverage, if any. The first is individually purchased life insurance. Perhaps you will find individual policies among the deceased’s papers. If not, look in his or her checkbook and/or refer to old paycheck stubs for premiums to any insurance companies. Once you know whether individual policies are in force, you can either call the life insurance companies for instructions or write a letter requesting payment of benefits.

Of course, benefits will be payable only to the beneficiary or beneficiaries named in the policy. If you come across a TIAA or a TIAA-CREF Life Insurance Company policy, call us at 800 223-1200 to speak with a consultant. If you’re entitled to benefits, we’ll send you the necessary forms.

The person who has died may have also been covered under a group life insurance policy, especially if he or she was employed at the time of death. Contact the employer’s benefits office to determine if such coverage was provided.

In addition, the deceased may have been insured under one or more association policies. These are usually group policies yielding modest benefits, provided through membership in “affinity groups” or professional associations. If you know the deceased belonged to any professional association or group, contact a representative to ask whether life insurance is offered to its members.

Credit life insurance is a fourth kind of life insurance. It is often used to pay off outstanding debts if the policyholder dies. There are two types of credit life insurance: mortgage insurance and credit card insurance.

Insurance proceeds can be paid to the beneficiaries in several ways. No one payment method is best for everyone. If you are entitled to benefits, be sure to discuss your options with an insurance agent or representative, financial advisor or lawyer.

Retirement Plans

If the person who has died worked for any length of time for a single employer, death benefits may be available under a company pension or annuity plan. If the employer was a state college or university, benefits may be payable through the state retirement system. Pension benefits earned through the federal government often carry survivor pension benefits, too. Check with any current and previous employers as the eligibility conditions necessary for survivor benefits may differ from employer to employer.

Under the typical TIAA-CREF plan, an individual named as beneficiary on a TIAA-CREF account in the preretirement phase will be entitled to the money accumulated in the accounts at the date of death. If the deceased was already receiving TIAA-CREF retirement income, survivor benefits depend on the income option under which the deceased was being paid. Once we learn of a participant’s death, we send each beneficiary a packet of information, including the forms that must be completed along with the estimates of survivor benefits. If you have any questions about TIAA-CREF’s survivor benefits, or if you need to notify us of a participant’s death, call us at 800 842-2776.

If you’re the beneficiary of both life insurance and retirement plan assets, it may be a good idea to claim the insurance benefits first. The payment choices and benefits processing are usually simpler with insurance, as are the tax requirements. With both life insurance and retirement plan benefits, you may need to make decisions on how you want your benefits paid. You should take into account your immediate and long-term financial situation, tax liabilities and other factors.

Don’t hesitate to ask for guidance from your insurance agents or from retirement plan representatives. TIAA-CREF employs many consultants whose primary role is to answer your questions. These are people who work with problems like yours every day. Their suggestions may make it easier for you to make your own informed decisions.

Veterans’ Benefits

There are several different types of veterans’ benefits. Veterans are entitled to free burial in a national cemetery. If they were receiving veterans’ benefits at the time of death, they may qualify for a contribution toward their burial in a private cemetery. Grave markers are available free of charge. Other benefits may include educational assistance and medical care for dependents. You can obtain information on veterans’ benefits, including a listing of national cemeteries by state, at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) website, or by calling 800 827-1000.

To apply for benefits, contact your local VA office (you can’t apply online). The VA will send you instructions and forms. You’ll need:

  • A certified copy of the death certificate
  • A copy of a certificate of honorable discharge
  • Your marriage certificate (if the deceased was your husband or wife)
  • The birth certificates of any dependent children
  • All relevant Social Security numbers

Other Employee Benefits

If the deceased was employed at the time of death, you should contact the employer. In addition to life insurance, the employer may have provided health or accident insurance. In some cases, an employee’s health insurance can be continued for a surviving spouse or dependent children. Also ask the employer about any payment due for unused vacation or sick leave. If the deceased wasn’t employed, you may still want to contact previous employers to check if you’re entitled to any benefits. Ask if the deceased belonged to any unions or professional organizations that may offer death benefits for their members.

Social Security

If the person who has died contributed to Social Security for the required period of time, you may be eligible for survivor benefits, usually as a spouse or dependent child.

Payment of Social Security survivor benefits is not automatic. You must file a claim. Call Social Security at 800 772-1213 to find out if the deceased was covered and to discuss possible benefits. One of the online calculators found on the Social Security Administration website may also provide helpful information. (Type “calculator” in the Search box.)

Also consider making an appointment at the nearest Social Security office, so you’ll have enough time to address all your questions. It’s helpful to ask for the name and specific phone number of the Social Security representative in case you have to reschedule or have other questions later. You can find your local Social Security office listed in the phone book, usually in the U.S. Government section under “Health and Human Services.”

When applying for Social Security survivor benefits, bring the following documents:

  • Death certificate
  • Proof of age (such as birth certificates) for you and that of any other beneficiary(ies)
  • Proof of your and the beneficiaries’ relationships to the deceased (for a spouse, the marriage certificate; for children, birth certificates or adoption papers)
  • Social Security numbers of all concerned
  • W-2 forms of the deceased for the past two years to help Social Security compute your benefits

Please keep in mind that TIAA-CREF and its affiliates do not provide tax or other advice. Please consult your own advisors.

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