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Banking

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Navigating Deceased Funds & Accounts

When someone passes away, many questions arise about how to handle a Deceased’s finances. To move through this transition, it’s important to understand the ways financial accounts are transferred after a death, especially if the estate goes into probate.

Accessing Accounts:

The first question many people ask is: who has a legal right to access the Deceased’s accounts? Depending on what types of accounts the Deceased held, and the state in which the accounts were opened, the laws can vary widely. The first step is to understand the laws for your state. Look up the laws for your state (by contacting state government offices via telephone or online) or seek the assistance of an attorney to ensure you’re getting accurate information.

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Joint Accounts vs. Personal Accounts:

What is the difference between joint accounts and personal accounts? Generally in joint accounts, ownership passes to the other person named on the account. If the account was only in the Deceased’s name the account becomes the property of the estate. If this is the case, the account usually cannot be accessed until a personal representative (PR) is designated to handle the affairs of the Deceased. This person will then have access to the funds.

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Types of Payments:

Life Insurance / 401(k): Life insurance payments and money in a 401(k) are not subject to being part of the estate as long as there is a beneficiary (other than the estate) named on those accounts. Please Note: In some cases, checks from life insurance companies or others may arrive in the insured’s name rather than that of the beneficiary. Call the company to confirm that there is indeed a beneficiary named on the account, and, if there is, have the check reissued in the beneficiary’s name.

Miscellaneous Checks: If there is no estate and no beneficiary, you may need to contact the issuer of the check to get the check reissued in name of the next of kin. It’s likely that the issuer will require a death certificate and other documentation to validate the request.

Personal Checks: You may find that the Deceased wrote checks to pay bills or even to friends to whom money was owed. Whether these checks will be processed through the Deceased’s account depends on the bank. If the bank is aware of the death, it’s likely they will stop all transactions until the estate is settled or there is a personal representative (PR) appointed. This is based on the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), a set of laws enacted to streamline how businesses conduct commercial transactions. (The UCC states that banks may continue to pay checks on the Deceased’s account until they are notified of the death or until ten days after the death.) If you are owed money by the Deceased, and the bank has stopped processing payments through the account, you can contact the PR of the estate to file a claim. When the estate goes through probate, your claim will be considered a debt. If valid, and if funds are available, the debt will be paid.

Payable Checks: It is possible that the insurance company and other entities will make checks payable to the estate of the Deceased. In that case, the check should be deposited in the estate’s account and be used to pay the estate’s expenses.

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Mortgages:

When someone dies, many people are concerned about what happens to the property or mortgage of the Deceased. As with most financial issues, it depends upon whose name is on the mortgage and property policies.

Joint Mortgage: If there was a joint mortgage with rights of survivorship, (for example, between spouses), the mortgage becomes the surviving spouse’s responsibility. In this way, nothing really changes. Mortgage payments remain the same, except the survivor will want to contact the mortgage company so the mortgage can be altered to reflect sole ownership. (The mortgage company will likely require a death certificate to verify this change.) Please Note: When a spouse passes away, it can often mean a sharp reduction in income. Planning ahead for immediate expenses like mortgage payments, utilities, medical expenses and food is advisable.

Sole Owner: If the Deceased was the sole owner of a mortgage, the property is part of the Deceased’s estate. It then becomes the personal representative's responsibility to see that the mortgage is paid while the estate is being handled. If you are the personal representative (PR), contact the mortgage company to notify them of the death. They will likely have their own policies and procedures to follow and can give you information about what is expected, especially if the estate is in probate. If there are no funds to pay the mortgage, the PR may need to sell the property in order to pay it and other debts.

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Bonds, Annuities and Other Investments:

Cash investments should be liquidated and then transferred to the estate account to be available to pay debts and to be distributed after death. Specific examples include:

IRAs / Annuities: For these accounts, a beneficiary is usually named who will then receive the funds from that account upon the account holder’s death. If there are no beneficiaries, the accounts become part of the estate. In some cases, even when there is no beneficiary, the investments can be transferred to the heirs of the Deceased if the Deceased expressed that wish but did not formally add heirs as beneficiaries. In such a case, the debts need to be paid by other assets before the account can be passed to the heirs.

Certificates of Deposit (CDs): The general practice is to liquidate all the cash investments and transfer them to the estate account. However, if there is a significant penalty for early withdrawal of a certificate of deposit (CD), the CD may be allowed to mature. Consult a probate lawyer to ensure you’re aware of all options.   

Stock Certificates: It’s not uncommon for families to encounter old stock certificates when going through a deceased’s belongings, especially if they were older when they passed away. Currently, most stocks are held electronically by brokers. In the past you’d receive a paper certificate to represent the shares that you owned. So what do you do? If you have a broker, start there. Many brokers have the resources to identify and properly place stock certificates that are older than 10 years. If they cannot help, try the following:

  • Locate and record the important information (the name of the company and location, the CUSIP number and the name in which the stock is registered). Many companies change names over time, so although the company might exist, it may be very different from what it was when the stock was issued. You can use the Internet, the library or your broker to find out the company’s history.
  • Look for the location of incorporation. This will tell you the location of the company so you can find the appropriate records. (Usually the Secretary of State's office will have records of companies that were incorporated in that state.)
  • The CUSIP number uniquely identifies the security, so this number can provide a wealth of information about the company when the stock certificate was issued. Each time a company changes, either by merger, by splitting or ceasing to exist at all, the CUSIP number on its stock changes. The CUSIP number, therefore, can reveal the modern incarnation of the company.


If you’re successful at finding the company that issued the certificate (and have tracked how the company has changed), you then need to speak to the company’s transfer agent. Usually a transfer agent will be listed on the company’s Web site; alternatively, you can get the information by calling the company.

Transfer agents work specifically to transfer securities and to do bookkeeping for companies that don’t have these services in-house. You’ll want to refer to the investor relations portion of the company’s Web site to find out whom to contact about transferring the security. The transfer agent should have a record of the stock certificate and can then transfer it into your name. Please Note: The transfer agent needs to be in contact with the person who legally inherited the securities and will likely need documentation (e.g., a valid will), to prove that the Deceased bequeathed the security to someone.

What happens if you track the company down and learn it’s no longer publicly held? Consult a lawyer. You might have some course of legal action that can be taken, but a lawyer is the only resource who can help you in these cases.

Finally, if none of these methods proves fruitful, there are companies that specifically search for stocks to determine the value of old stock certificates. Find them via the Internet or Yellow Pages.

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