DEALING WITH BEREAVEMENT _ A ROAD WITHOUT A MAP
A year or so ago, I lost a close family member. I was unacquainted with the formal aspects involved with what happens when someone dies. Why would I be? It’s an experience remote from everyday life, an almost taboo subject which isn’t often openly talked about. Bereavement catches us out of our comfort zone completely. Not enough that the emotional aspects knock you sideways, but the whirlwind of tasks, process and paperwork add to the experience of being on a road without a map. This article offers several practical tips that I learned from that time, most of which, with hindsight are quite simple alerts but incredibly, nobody tells you.
Funeral Directors are worth their weight
My first advice is to shop around when choosing a funeral director because the strength of relationship you form will influence the easiness of further steps. Fees for funerals vary considerably and my own experience is that “the funeral chains” rather than the independent firms can be more expensive, not the other way around. Don’t feel pressurised to spend more on fancy cars than your common sense voice inside tells you, and don’t have your conscious pricked that the amount of money somehow mirrors the extent of love you have. Do however open up to your chosen funeral director and ask questions if you don’t have yet in mind a venue for the wake, a florist, a vicar, hotel rates for visiting relatives and so on. Don’t be afraid to ask because you think you should know. What you will learn from this is that funeral arrangers know everyone in the area and invariably they want to help by giving you phone numbers, contacts and practical advice.
Who pays what?
Your loved one is no longer there but it’s startling to watch aspects of their life continue as normal unless you act. The daily newspapers arrive, the utility bills turn up, dry cleaning goes uncollected, doctor and hair appointments go unfulfilled, and orders for goods and services continue unless someone says stop. You quickly realise why families tend to alert the bank early when someone dies. As Executor, when you do this, the bank account will be immediately frozen. The good thing about this of course is that no further direct debits can disappear from the deceased’s account, but the converse equally applies, and from this point onwards, all bills and expenses become your responsibility to meet. Obituaries in newspapers, removing valuable items from the unoccupied address and adding to your own insurance policy, paying the telephone bill (relatives and friends keep calling so you can’t just have the telephone disconnected) and gas and electricity – these are all still needed in the property. By the time the funeral and wake are over and other household bills paid, the deceased’s estate may owe you more than £2000, money that will, of course, be reimbursed to you by the estate in due course once the legal probate process is further on.
Paying for the funeral
The funeral invoice can be paid from the deceased’s bank account assuming there is one. Most funeral arrangers will be prepared to wait for their money and all you need to do is to send the bank the funeral invoice with a written note asking them to pay it from the deceased’s (now frozen) account. However, since burial or cremation fees are usually local authority services, the cost of these normally has to be paid by you at the time you book the funeral. Allow hundreds of pounds for this. The bank will not allow the cost of the wake or reception to be paid from the deceased’s account so allow for this too.
Date for burial or cremation
Don’t assume that the date for the burial or cremation is a case of just picking a date to suit family and relative diaries. Demand for burials and cremations can be high. It may be a case of booking the crematorium first before the funeral if you have a particular day in mind, and then sorting out which local funeral director is free that day.
Registering the death
When you go to register the death, get a double digit number of copies of the death certificate – these are called Certified Copies. Nobody tells you in advance that various institutions, such as where the deceased banked, saved or shopped, will all want to see a Certified Copy. It is fine if you can walk into these institutions to advise them of the death as they will not need to retain the certificate (or can make a photocopy) but if, for example, you are writing to John Lewis to close the store account, you will need to enclose a certified copy of the Death Certificate. Each copy costs roughly £3.50 when purchased at the time of registering the death and approximately double that if you apply for more copies afterwards. Take cash to the Registry Office and allow £30 or so for enough copies.
Whether to use a professional firm to help you?
As the Executor of the estate, you may consider doing the probate and other paperwork yourself, the alternative of course being to engage a professional firm, typically a specialist probate firm or a solicitor or a bank. It’s certainly true that some estates are more straightforward than others and a decision on what “straightforward” means will typically depend on what is set out in the Will – assuming there is one of course – together with the number and complexity of assets of the deceased (assets = house, bank accounts, shares). If you are thinking of doing the probate yourself, do research fully what’s involved from start to finish. How do you do this when advice on the web is fragmented and professional firms biased in their own favour? Back to common sense basics again – ask questions. Ask your friends and colleagues about their own experience, use the web to find professional companies, shop around and when you speak to a professional company, don’t be intimidated by jargon. Expect from them a clear and straightforward fixed price based on the amount of work involved, not a price that is a percentage of the value of the estate. Ask, consider and reflect and then go with your instincts.