HOWTO: Handle Closing Dead People’s Accounts

Anyone wishing to avoid the pain voiced by Sharon G in, “Sprint Harasses Grieving Mother For Two Years,” should read the guide inside.

It’s an eight point primer to closing dead people’s accounts and canceling their contracts, graciously sent in by reader Seth.

The guide covers the importance of having lots of death certificates to send to companies, a fancy thing called Letter Testamentary, and the importance of, above all, keeping one’s sense of humor.

The last thing you want interrupting your grieving is a phonecall from the cellphone company asking where your dead son’s money is.

Seth writes:

Some years back I went through a period when I was the executor (or administrator) of three estates, so I’ve run into my share of “so and so is dead and now I want to do such and such” sort of problems. Despite my best efforts, all three parties were still dead when I closed their estates, but I learned so much I almost quit my job to start an executor’s services company.

Among the things I learned:

1) Always get LOTS of death certificates. Even savage beasts, like airlines, will massively adjust their attitudes if you toss one of these their way. Figure out how many you think you’ll need then get some extras. You will need them.

2) Get a good supply of Letters Testamentary, but not too many, because these expire in 30, 60 or 90 days, depending on the paranoia levels of the institution you are dealing with. Having a Letter Testamentary is like owning someone’s account.

3) Debts do not terminate with death, though most contracts do. If you are absolutely desperate to get out of that cellular plan, dying might work for you. Your estate will still have to pay the final bill, but I believe the estate gets to keep the phone. It is possible that I will learn otherwise if I keep reading Consumerist.

4) Death certificates are NOT public records. They are generally issued to family members and those posing as family members with little checking, but if you don’t have the same last name or address as the deceased, you’ll have to provide FRESH letters testamentary.

5) Many types of stock options vest completely immediately upon death, even if the death occurred before the initial public offering.

6) If you ask nicely, most phone companies will change the voice mail recording and replace it with their standard one. A lot of people think it is creepy when a dead person answers the phone, so this was good news. The phone companies will still ask you to send them a death certificate. I don’t know if they’ll restore the original message if you fail to do so after 30 days, but nothing is impossible.

7) It doesn’t matter if the testator has signed each page of the will. The only signature that matters is the one at the bottom. For some people signing each page, but not at the bottom is perfectly in character, and one can imagine laughing with the deceased about the oversight.

8) Keeping one’s sense of humor is absolutely essential when dealing with death. It doesn’t lessen the blow, but it does help when dealing with airlines, phone companies, tax auditors, insurers, banks, brokers, and bureaucrats.


Edit Your Comment

  1. allisonblaire says:

    When my father died, my mom was a mess. This estaate was simple and went all to her. NO letters of testimentary were created. Now 8 years later I find out that there was one lock box at a bank which was in his name (which is empty) that they insist we need legal paperwork to open. I’d rather not open it at all, and certainly don’t want to spend the money on the lawyer, can I just ignore the bills?

  2. RickyF says:

    This is good information.

    Now how do we deal with the deceased’s on-line accounts where there is no telephone number or physical address to correspond? How do we gain access without username and password? Sticky wicket, ain’t it.

  3. GamerJunkdotNet says:

    You can keep the phone if you are outside the 30 day trial period of the cell phone carrier.

    Good advice. Yea just because it is posted in an obituary doesn’t mean it’s public records so don’t think that just anyone can find out that info.

    For online accounts call the company and send them the death certificate and the documentation that you are head of the estate now.

  4. Nifle says:

    Another point of contention is if the deceased had a secure loan: Auto, boat, even house. If there is not a spouse in the picture, these items may go into immediated foreclosure or reposession if arrangements are not made with the financial institution.

    In dealing with financial accounts, if the decedent has assigned a payable on death (POD) to the account, the Letter of Testamentary becomes null to that institution and the pod supercedes it.

  5. thrillhouse says:

    Very good, Consumerist (and Seth for that matter). Factual, solid information on a relevant topic.

    my two cents: I don’t care how old you are, you need a will (and to properly fill it out). You also need a living will or health care directive so that its not left up to the government to decide.

  6. “Now how do we deal with the deceased’s on-line accounts where there is no telephone number or physical address to correspond? How do we gain access without username and password?”

    The best thing to do — and what I reccommend my elderly clients do — is provide a list of these along with the letter that includes location of important papers and the key to the safety deposit box and so forth. Of course, this sort-of defeats the purpose of having really good passwords by writing them down somewhere. How safe you think such a stratagem is is your call.

    However: SOME online companies will give you access to the accounts of the dead by the same process — provide death certificates, letters testamentary, etc. You will usually need to contact someone well up the service ladder (don’t worry, they’ll escalate you pretty quickly by e-mail when someone’s died) and then they will generally want the documents by registered mail, though sometimes by fax. Then, depending on the system and what you need to access, you generally get a “reset” password by which you can access the account.

    Others will not do this because once the customer creates an account, the company does not access the customer’s information at all. It depends on the TOS and the privacy policy, and what mechanisms they generally have in place for letting the customer back into his account if he spaces on his password or whatever.

    Other online companies have simply never dealt with the question and don’t know what to do. They’ll either dither or blow you off or escalate you to a head honcho so he can decide. But this should become less common in the years to come.

  7. Triteon says:

    Excellent post. I would add that a couple years back my father was assigned power of attorney over my grandmother– a bright and vibrant woman who assigned POA only in the event of her incapacitation. When she suddenly passed away last year Dad, acting also as her executor, was able to clear her accounts with great ease in a very trying time.

  8. segfault, registered cat offender says:

    You probably don’t need that many certified copies of the death certificate. They charge for each one. Many institutions will accept a photocopy.

    Life insurance policies will require an original before you can collect on them, and, if the insurance policy is a very large amount ($1,000,000 or so), the company will conduct its own investigation before they pay you.

  9. Nifle says:

    FYI…Power of Attorneys are null and void at the time of a person’s death.

  10. Triteon says:

    Nifle, that sounds odd, as the bank asked my father if he had proof of POA before closing her account. Or maybe the bank had it wrong too?

  11. sam says:

    What everyone in my family does is have a second person (that we trust) on our bank account. My grandfather insisted on this, and my mother had been his second. When she died (at the age of 49) before my grandfather, he put me on the account. I had some basic information, but never touched the account until the week before he died (he went into hospice). At that point, I contacted the bank and made myself an active user. This was significantly faster than going through probate, and I used the money to pay his final funeral expenses, the common charges on his apartment (until my brother and I sold it), and random credit card bills and whatnot that the “estate” was responsible for.

    At the end of the day, there ended up being a few bucks left in the account, which I split between myself and my brother (gf’s sole grandchildren – mom was an only child).

    Since I’m the lawyer in the family (and the oldest), I always get stuck dealing with this type of stuff, and it’s just a good idea to make sure that someone else has access immediately. Someone you trust implicitly.

  12. “Nifle, that sounds odd, as the bank asked my father if he had proof of POA before closing her account. Or maybe the bank had it wrong too?”

    Banks are stupid about this. They frequently refuse POAs for no reason, and most don’t realize POAs expire on death. I generally tell my clients to ASSUME the bank won’t let anyone else access their accounts without a massive runaround and go from there.

  13. Triteon says:

    Banks are stupid about this.
    They must be, and I add myself as a– previously– misinformed consumer, as now two (perhaps 3?) attorneys have chimed in on the subject I raised. Thanks all!

  14. My wife is [unfortunately] the responsible one in her family, and so it fell upon her to handle her brother’s affairs after he died (without a will, dammit! People, get a will done now, otherwise the process becomes an order of magnitude more annoying). Probably the most amusing letter we received was from Rogers Wireless. To paraphrase, it read:


    In order to maintain your good credit, please pay your outstanding balance of [one month’s bill] immediately. It would be a shame to have an unpaid bill on your credit history. Blah blah blah, we’re morons and used a standard boilerplate letter because we can’t figure out that you’re DEAD.

    Sincerely, A bunch of Idiots at Rogers

  15. Nifle says:

    I worked at a financial institution with the specific role of handling the accounts of our deceased customers, you’re bank was not correct to accept a POA after your father’s death. Usually there is a clause in the POA that states that it’s revocable upon death and then all testamentary/will documentation go into effect to respect the wishes of the decedent.

  16. SpamFighterLoy says:

    On the bank accounts: we have set up all of ours ITF … something happens to us and they immediately go over to another. Simply placing a joint account holder does not always help. In NY state, creditors can freeze joint accounts until all financial matters are straightened out.

    There is also a legal term called ‘life use’ which family members have used to gift a house to children and then turn it over ‘life use’ to the parents. The parents ‘own’ it only as long as they live, after which it turns immediately back to the children.

    In both of those cases, the assets cannot be seized to settle open debts, as they no longer belong to the decedent. At least that’s my understanding from listening to lawyers (IANAL).

  17. I don’t care how old you are, you need a will (and to properly fill it out). You also need a living will or health care directive so that its not left up to the government to decide.

    People, get a will done now, otherwise the process becomes an order of magnitude more annoying

    How much does getting this done usually cost? Any suggestions on getting started on that?

  18. Geode says:

    How much does getting this done usually cost? Any suggestions on getting started on that?

    A will shouldn’t cost more than a few hundred dollars, and it’s money well spent. Call up a lawyer in your judisdiction and make an appointment. It’s better if it’s a good lawyer recommended to you by somebody, but for a basic will pretty much any lawyer will do. If the will is done properly, you shouldn’t need to update it very often (only upon a major life event – birth, death, marriage, etc).

    Nobody gets to pick the time they die, but you can help make the process easier for the people that survive you. Having a proper will drafted is one of the best things you can do for your family. Anybody who has been executor/administrator of an estate where the deceased was intestate (died without a will) knows how much of a pain the process can be. A proper will lets you decide what happens to your stuff when you die. Without one, the government decides for you.

  19. ohadi says:

    I was executor for two estates in 2006. My advice is to immediately close every open bank, credit card, retail, and utility (gas, electric, phone, cable) account the deceased had and notify them the reason is the account holder is dead.

    Getting a dozen or more death certificates, the real ones, not photocopies, is essential. Most county vital records offices will issue them to family members for a nominal fee. My experience is that the county did check my ID and relationship to the deceased before making the copies.

    If there are assets like cash in a checking account or investments, your financial insitution will roll the closed account over to an estate account using the federal tax ID number your accountant or attorney gets to set up the estate, This is a useful way to stop people from trying to do something illegal with the old account numbers.

    Also, give banks, utilities, medical providers, etc., your contact info in case anything suspcious shows up. In my case prompt action deflected several efforts at identify theft.

    This is going to be contrary to other advice, but my experience was that having the obituaries published in a newspaper which is online saved me a headache. One utility (a big phone company) actually checked them to validate my commuication the parties were deceased.

    Be prepared for slow responses from people who don’t know you. Elder care fraud is a big deal and a lot more common than you think. Some places will treat you like a potential crook until you produce paperwork that says otherwise. Having a local attorney in the jurisdiction where the deceased lived will make your life a lot easier.

    Even so I was sharply questioned by one bank which couldn’t understand the letter testimentary from the court in rural Colorado. I finally referred their calls to my attorney. Once the two lawyers talked the problems were resolved.

    Bottom line, if the estate has any assets worth worrying about, get a lawyer. Be sure to ask about fees upfront so there are no surprises.

    I’m not a lawyer.

  20. Snakeophelia says:

    A will shouldn’t cost more than a few hundred dollars, and it’s money well spent. Call up a lawyer in your judisdiction and make an appointment.

    Better yet, if your life is simple and you don’t own a lot of mansions for your relatives to fight over, go find a document preparation service. There’s one in the Philly area called We The People. They have lawyers on staff and templates for all kinds of documents, and so it’s much cheaper than dealing with a single lawyer. You fill it out, sign it, they notarize and stamp it and it’s official. Sort of the halfway point between doing it all yourself and having a lawyer do it.

    I got a will and a living will for a total cost of $198, I believe.

  21. bbdiva says:


  22. markincleveland says:

    I found that getting a credit report immediately after the death, if you wait to long and the credit bureau finds our before you request one it is to late, will help you find all of the credit accounts