Death in the Family: What Do I Do Now? – The practical things you need to know

By Sue-Ann Chia

Death is never an easy thing to talk about, what more of a family member. I have contemplated long and hard about sharing this because I wanted people to read it instead of brushing it off because it’s a taboo topic. Many people have asked me to write it because they themselves never knew the many things that need to be done in case of death.

Just last month, it was my mom’s 2nd death anniversary and until today, there is remaining paperwork to be settled. And this is even in the situation where we had time to make preparations and she had a will!

Thankfully, in my mom’s case, we had tremendous help from our friends from church. They had contacts of a funeral home and we had also decided that she would be cremated which meant we had 2 less major decisions to worry about.

I will be sharing some of the unexpected things I learned and the inevitable responsibilities that need to be taken care of, in the hopes that it may help you. As hard as it is, discuss these things with your family members. It may be a difficult conversation now, but think of it as a way to lighten the burden of your family members should anything untoward happen to any one of them/you.

Imagine already having to deal with the pain of the loss and managing the funeral, and on top of that having to search for the will, look into bank accounts, decide how to handle assets, etc. Your brain would already be so scrambled but all these things still need to be done.

What did I learn?

  • If an individual passes away at home, a police report needs to be made before the death certificate will be issued.
  • You then need to source for a funeral services provider and they will take care of the rest. As mentioned, we were grateful to have friends from church who already had contacts which were reasonably-priced. So, ask friends and relatives for contacts and pricing.
  • Funeralexpenses can be a bomb. This is a sad reality too. If there was a hospital stay, the hospital expenses need to be covered, then the funeral expenses, and the burial expenses too. I learned later that Selangor residents get some funds to help with this.
  • Your birth certificate is important! You won’t believe how many times you will be asked to produce it.
  • The actual insurance policies are very important. When you go to the insurance companies to make the life insurance claim, they will need you to produce the actual policies.
  • If there’s a Will, contact lawyers to apply for the Grant of Probate. This will allow the Executor to act on behalf of the deceased. This document is necessary for change of ownership of big things like property, car, and monetary assets.
  • The Will is not the only important document to be submitted to court. The deceased also needs to have a List of Assets which is important for execution of the will. If the list of assets is not complete when the Grant of Probate is produced, the lawyer will need to submit an amendment to court.
  • In our case, the lawyer required the witness on the will to sign an affidavit. However, we had no idea who the witness was! The name was not familiar at all! Most of the time, we may know our parents’ friends by different names (e.g.: the person we know as Aunty Catherine may be Choo Mei Lee). Thus began the detective work to find out who signed my mother’s will as the witness.
  • My mother was unwell for a time before she passed away, so I had already taken over all her online banking transactions. I thought this area was at least something we didn’t have to worry about. Boy was I wrong. There were 2 things I did not have – her email account password and her phone SIM unlock code. We discovered later that we needed to reset the password for some of her other online accounts, but when that happens, it gets sent to the primary email address for verification! But we couldn’t get into her email account because we didn’t have the password L Similarly for the phone, most banking transactions now require a TAC or something similar which is sent to the phone. Without her phone code, we couldn’t access the information. That was quite a nightmare going round and round.
  • Safe deposit boxes usually require an account to be opened in the bank and the annual payments are deducted directly. We discovered that we had forgotten this and had not paid the fees for a year. Thankfully the bank did not discard her items and allowed us to pay the backdated fees, although we had to shift everything into a new safe deposit box once the ownership was changed.
  • Up till a year later, I was still finding out that some bills were auto-debited from certain credit cards or bank accounts because they were charged bi-annually or annually.
  • The whole process just generally takes time. Even though we contacted the lawyer quite soon after my mom’s death, we only got the court date 4 months later, and received the Grant of Probate about 2 months after that. We began the ownership transfer process for property quite immediately, and it still took another 6 months to complete.
  • Be ready for ‘insensitive’ requests by multiple parties to prove that the deceased is indeed deceased. Yes, for some, I do understand. But there are some which are just unnecessary. Sometimes we just need to show some compassion.

What you can do now!

  • No matter your age, write your will and let your loved ones know where it is! Many young working adults feel that they do not have much assets so they don’t prepare a will. But think about it – even if you only had RM1,000, wouldn’t you rather your family get it instead of the government?
  • Provide the contact details of the witness who signed your will.
  • Maintain a list of assets and update it at least once a year.
  • Check the nominees on your EPF, insurance policies, unit trusts, etc
  • Find your birth certificate! If you’ve really lost it, you can go to JPN to print a new one (RM5 per copy).
  • Know where important documents are kept: original insurance policies, house title, car title, will.
  • Create joint FDs and make sure they are ‘either to sign’ and not ‘both to sign’.
  • Set up online banking to help manage your elderly parents’ accounts.
  • Get access to email accounts and passwords, in case you need to click on ‘forget password’.
  • Know the phone SIM unlock code.
  • Know where safe deposit boxes and their keys are.
  • Take note of expiration and payment for safe deposit boxes.
  • Find out which bills are auto-debited from bank accounts/credit cards.
  • Discuss these matters with your family members now:
    • Where are your important documents kept?
    • Where can you find their passwords?
    • Do you have a will?
    • In case you are in a coma or have a serious injury, would you want to be resuscitated or put on life support?
    • Do you want to be buried or cremated, and where?
    • If you have purchased a burial plot, where is it and is it paid off?

And these are things not just to ask your parents or siblings, but to also ensure that you make your own plans and tell your spouse / parents / children / siblings / friends where all your things are.

May this information be useful to you and may it also be a good starting point for a discussion on these important matters.