Eularee Smith
Writer & Educator

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The Paper Trail 

How many times do you find yourself reciting your birth date or social security number to identify yourself? With a last name like Smith, I find it to be a common occurrence. But lately it feels like a labyrinth of paper that follows us from cradle to grave and beyond. 

My father in law passed away in 2009. I went through the official hoops of cremation and death certificates. It took months to distribute the death certificates to Social Security, banks, doctors, Dept of Motor Vehicles, insurance companies and literally anyone and everyone who had ever had my father in law’s name on a piece of paper. 

Orville did not believe in life insurance and I began handling the finances when his Alzheimer’s became pronounced. All the paperwork was at my disposal, thanks to the power of attorney we had established years prior. 

Two years since his death a letter arrives in the mail stating that Orville had opened an annuity in 1997. Unbeknownst to anyone, he had set aside $35,000 in an annuity at the onset of his disease. He left no paper trail to follow. And yet we were found. The company stated that an annual random death certificate search discovered that Orville had passed away. They were informing us that this money was left to the beneficiary to be claimed. 

And all I had to do was produce a death certificate. You would think the story ended there. Because it had been more than six months since his death, the county no longer had records available. We had to request them from the state. The trail continued to lead us through a maze of photo identification, signatures of request and pages of signed documentation, in order for us to obtain the “public” record. 

Legally speaking, the death certificate is one of the most important documents today. It is the key that opens and shuts the door on all the pieces of your life. From Social Security to an unexpected windfall, there are countless ways in which the death certificate serves as legal proof of our demise. 

My advice is to purchase more death certificates than you think you will ever need. Store them with your attorney or a location that is safe, secure but accessible (you may want to refer to the posts on normal memory loss). One never knows where the paper trail will lead. It may come to a mailbox near you. 

Local County or State Public Records Dept.
PBS Frontline 
You Can’t Die Until You Do The Paperwork by Marcia Camp

Image: Flickr/mdx (Creative Commons)

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