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Troubling discoveries on death, finances

A death in the family means a deep sense of loss. As I recently learned it also means filling out paperwork, sorting through a loved one's possessions and notifying credit card companies, banks, the government and others that someone has died.

Along the way, I also learned how easy it is to wipe out a big part of a person's financial identity with a minimum of personal information and no written verification. In fact, it could mean trouble for anyone who fails to safeguard his personal information.

It began about 6:30 p.m. July 16 with a shocking phone call. My wife's 83-year-old father had died, unexpectedly and alone in his Orlando apartment.

We arrived in Orlando the next day, a family reunion filled with grief. Still, my wife, her sisters and brothers-in-law had to take care of the funeral and other arrangements. For me, it was a first, and dealing with a death was both a sobering and eye-opening experience.

First, we had to get the small metal box in a bedroom closet where Moe kept his personal papers. We found the box, which had most but not everything we needed. It would take days of digging through drawers and boxes to find it all.

Memo 1 to self: Make sure the family knows where everything is in our house. It's difficult enough under such circumstances without sending the mourners on a scavenger hunt.

Everyone knows about the high cost of dying, but it was hard to avoid sticker shock at the funeral home. For a no-frills graveside service, with the plot purchased decades earlier and a simple pine casket, the bill ran more than $6,700. Fortunately, the funeral home accepted credit cards.

Memo 2: Discussing death and arrangements might not be pleasant, but it's a must. Start with the basics, such as burial or cremation. If it's to be a funeral, indicating a preference, say, on the casket would help.

Moe was not financially wealthy, although he was rich with a family who loved him and friends who cherished him. Though he had a simple will, it still cost $400 for an attorney to file the necessary court papers.

The real surprise, though, arrived when it came time to notify the Social Security Administration of his death and to call financial institutions, cancel credit cards and turn off phone service.

That was all too simple.

I helped clean out the apartment, spending hours shredding papers dating back decades. Moe, who owned and operated a retail store, was meticulous in keeping some records. We wanted to make sure no personal information, such as his Social Security number or a bank account number, could be picked out of the trash.

I called the Social Security Administration to find out how to report Moe's death. I gave his name, Social Security number, address and date of death. I identified myself as his son-in-law.

That was all it took to wipe him off Social Security and Medicare rolls. I asked the person on the other end of the line: no written verification? Not necessary, I was told.

Bill DeBardelaben, a Social Security Administration spokesman in Atlanta, later told me that yes, indeed, a phone call is sometimes all that is necessary to report a death, but the caller will be asked "some very specific questions to determine if you in fact are a relative of the person. We carefully ID the caller before we take action."

But I don't remember being asked much more than my relationship. DeBardelaben said it should have been more stringent. "Obviously, you understand why it's so important to get that information into our system to take action to ensure that we protect the public's trust," he said.

Well, yes, but I still feel uneasy with the process. And it's not just Social Security that accepts phone calls in these circumstances. The same thing happened when I called credit card companies. Name, account number, address. "We're sorry about your family's loss, and the account has been canceled" was the message as I made one call after another. No written verification needed. Ditto with the phone company.

Banks with checking and certificate of deposit accounts required a death certificate, a copy of the will and a letter from the court, as did brokerages, insurance and the Veterans Administration. Finally, written verification required.

But everything else was just too easy. It stunned me. I cover technology. I know how valuable personal information is. I know how it can be abused in the wrong hands.

Memo 3: If you think personal privacy issues are abstract and don't affect you, think again.

And keep your personal information to yourself.