After a loved one dies, the grief is compounded by red tape

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

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 overwhelming. And yet it is inevitable.

My family thought our finances were organized. We had wills and the beneficiaries were listed there and on all the financial accounts. Many people don’t, which makes the post-mortem bureaucracy even worse. But we still had months of crazy experiences with banks, insurance companies, employers, and the Social Security Administration—among others.

Here are some of the most serious obstacles:

Facial recognition, voice recognition, and fingerprint recognition speed up access when someone is alive, but present huge hurdles for survivors trying to weed out 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 have found that I cannot change this phone number. This means keeping Scott’s phone active, which is an unnecessary expense.

If you think you and your spouse share a credit card because you each have a card with your name and the same account number, guess again. This 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 freeze the survivor’s ability to view the account online. Providing a paper statement seems logical, but a representative from our bank told me, “Once you’ve decided to receive statements online, it’s our policy that you can’t go back to paper statements.” It took a full six months of pleading with the bank’s “deceased management team” (real name) to have statements sent to him for the months after Scott’s death. And it wasn’t easy to cancel some of the recurring charges.

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At Best Buy, the customer service rep said I had to take the death certificate to a Best Buy store to cancel my Geek Squad subscription. I considered wearing black with a veil, but I walked in dressed normal, with a death certificate in hand, and I got the money.

Personal visits are not recommended

When your frustration mounts after a marathon suspension, you may be tempted to visit your bank or insurance company in person. No. At one bank, the employee did not change the address after my arrival and referred me to the website of the financial institution.

I personally visited the Social Security office twice to try to change the address where Scott’s posthumous Medicare bills were sent because I had moved – and was now paying those bills. I was told that a change of address cannot be done in person after death; use his online account. But there is one account that is not in his password manager and has a unique username that I don’t know. I hope his medical bills come in at a snail’s pace before the post office stops sending him mail to our old address.

I bought several copies of Scott’s death certificate, but I wasn’t prepared for how companies were throwing out requests for additional documents. Without notice, Scott’s longtime employer clawed back his monthly pension and then refused to tell me what documents it required beyond a death certificate. The company needed to investigate Scott’s retirement wishes, she said.

Scott had only two options: a higher pension that ended with his death, or a lower pension that continued to me. It was obvious by the dollar amount of the checks that he had chosen a lower pension.

Two weeks after receiving the death certificate, a company representative requested Scott’s birth certificate. Two weeks later, our marriage license. Two weeks after that she applied for the original social security card I applied for at age 16. 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 sorted.

Yet she insisted on sending three months of pension withholding to my old address, even though I had provided proof of my new address weeks earlier.

Expedia demanded a death certificate and 30 days to stop emailing Scott. I couldn’t just check him out because he was booked on a flight once through Expedia, which was published in the fine print of the online travel agency.

I had to make one appointment with the clerk at our bank 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 my first visit. (It took two hours.)

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He spent most of his time sitting in the banker’s cubicle and waiting while he tried to get the bank’s property management group to answer the phone. Waited on hold for 43 minutes while I sat there. It took several minutes to delete Scott’s name. The banker hung up without asking about the credit card associated with this account and had to call back. We waited another 18 minutes for the phone to be picked up.

My return appointment for the recipient took another hour sitting in that cubicle.

Many of these red tape issues are even more annoying because they often require phone calls with endless waits. When reps do finally connect, they always start with common and insincere “sorry for your loss” scripts.

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

How to reduce these irritations

To minimize these frustrations, here are some suggestions you’ll learn the hard way:

1. Keep an updated list of recurring credit card charges, organized by card.

2. Make sure you have the credit card you applied for in your name.

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

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

5. Take stock and make sure you have birth and marriage certificates, adoption or divorce papers, 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 different agencies.

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

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