Whether or not we want to plan for it, we all inevitably die. A hard subject for some to grasp, death can bring forth a variety of emotions, conflict, or even chaos, depending on whether or not the deceased had a pre-established estate plan.
To some extent, everyone has assets, but what happens when music is one of those assets—specifically song lyrics and the recording of those songs? We often think about the physical attributes of an estate plan after someone dies—like jewelry, amplifiers, and guitars—but how does a musician plan their legacy that will proceed their death?
Some Minnesota musicians and artists have developed assets over time and have developed their own plans for their music as part of their estate planning process.
Musician Chris Osgood, one-third of the punk-rock trio The Suicide Commandos, has spent time organizing his own musical assets with his fellow bandmates, and for himself, as he continues his own estate-planning process.
“People like myself have a tendency to forget non-physical property is still an asset,” Osgood says over the phone. “When you are doing your death planning, the first thing you think about is, who gets which guitar and objects? The last thing you think about is intellectual property, like your songs, that hopefully will continue.”
Working with musicians, artists, and other talent, attorney Ken Abdo has helped create estate plans that include music assets and legacy planning.
“An artist’s music assets, in the context of estate planning, are really just one of many assets that an artist has,” Abdo says. “The estate planning does not limit itself just to the music aspect. They may have a house, debts, other property, other children. It is part of the whole estate of an individual.”
When you are a musician, prominently known or not, you may have the additional, non-physical assets of copyright, trademark, and even name and likeness potentially included in estate planning. All of these assets together are better known in estate planning as intellectual property.
“When we are talking about music assets, we are really talking about the greater world of intellectual property,” says Abdo. “Copyright is one of those parts. There are two different copyrights involved in the recording of music: there is the underlying composition or songwriting part of it, and then there is the recorded version of that song.”
Protected under United States copyright law, a musician’s compositions and recordings are preserved for 70 years past their death. Musical assets can continue making money well past the death of the musician—an estate plan can determine who benefits from or administers these royalties. Once the copyright period expires, the music enters into the public domain, which helps explain the popularity and exorbitant recordings of songs like “Silent Night,” or other classical hits—because the originator is no longer protected, anyone can write and record the song without the penalty of payment.
Osgood and the other members of The Suicide Commandos have a musical history that spans back to 1975. Planning everything from songwriting credits to publishing rights to trademark, Osgood and his fellow bandmates recently meticulously combed through their catalog and assigned the appropriate credits for their music to each band member.
“When we put out the last record “Time Bomb,” we got a publishing deal from a company called Words and Music down in Nashville,” says Osgood. “It was mandatory when we accepted that contract, to go through each song of our entire catalog and figure out who wrote what and make sure that all parties were content with the fractions. It was easy for us to agree. Songwriting credits are pretty easy to divvy up. Song lyrics hold equal weight to the music.”
A newer technology is helping to preserve intellectual property: holograms. Holographic tours have grown in popularity amongst some musicians, and although the process to create a holographic tour is complicated, it can help protect an artist’s name and likeness, trademark rights, copyright rights, and enable an income source for heirs.
As for reputation and how musicians want people to see their image after death, they can include that in their estate planning under the right of publicity, also known as “personality rights,” which applies to 23 states and controls the commercial use of their identity.
“When you die, that is an asset, where you can bequeath the rights to your name and likeness to another person,” says Abdo. “If you died and were famous and branded, you would want to make sure that your name and likeness fall into the right hands. You would designate that person for trustee, or someone who could shepherd your legacy by making good and correct use with guidance, to keep your legacy going—it survives your death. [For] most people, when you die, you’re dead. But when you are a famous person, you have a name and likeness that has value after your death.”
Although most people do not start their estate planning process until their 50s according to a national survey, Osgood believes being pragmatic is important when dealing with assets- especially when creative assets such as music, are a part of the process.
“It’s still mailbox money and money that can go to someone who is handling my estate,” says Osgood. “I think a lot of people overlook that and don’t think a lot about it. For most of us this side of Steely Dan, it’s not that big of a deal one way or another. It could be, and it often is, if someone’s song gets picked up for a movie or an ad posthumously.”
For anyone that has music as an asset, Osgood believes that musicians should include their work in their planning, even if they do not work full-time in the industry.
“For any creative person, don’t sell yourself short or think that because you are not making a complete living from your art, whatever it happens to be, that it isn’t important or that it wouldn’t be important for future generations,” says Osgood.
Reflecting on artists like Aretha Franklin, who recently made headlines for not having a formal estate plan, Osgood believes that musicians and others who have assets can learn from those public eye experiences.
“It’s a cautionary tale for anyone,” says Osgood. “You are taken aback that somebody of that stature hasn’t given that some thought. Maybe they didn’t because they were afraid of death, or something spooked them. It doesn’t spook me. It’s the last part of life. You have to prepare for it the same way you fill up your car before you take it on a trip.”
In Winnipeg in a January blizzard, there are few places as toasty and sheltered as a crematorium. I know this because I worked in one. When the cremation chamber, or retort, is firing at 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit (900 Celsius), the work space is balmy, like a ski lodge. The noise of the powerful gas jets is buffered by the stone and steel of the machinery. When the gear is running, all you hear is a low, soothing rumble. It’s peaceful. I used to read Eudora Welty short stories while the body burned, stopping regularly to monitor temperatures and stoke the remains with an iron hook passed through a small, eye-level porthole in the oven door. The process is conducive to reflection.
Cremation seems clinical: fire, ashes. But in fact there is enormous spiritual heft behind it. We talk about the cleansing power of fire. As a funeral rite it goes back to the Bronze Age at least. “Fire,” writes the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “magnifies human destiny, it links the small to the great, the hearth to the volcano.” Man “hears the call of the funeral pyre” not as destruction but as a road to renewal. This is overstating the case, as French philosophers do, but it still scans. Now try saying the same about a chemical process.
Last week, I read a story about a new process called alkaline hydrolysis. In a nutshell, it’s like cremation without the fire: The body is immersed in chemicals in a cylindrical device that looks (judging from the photo, as I’ve never seen one up close) like a large telescope with an Instant Pot lid. The chemicals break down the soft tissue, which is flushed away, leaving behind bones and any non-organic residue such as tooth fillings or artificial hips. The device is called a Resomator, a Doctor-Whovian commercial euphemism for what is basically a body-dissolving machine.
Industry licensing bodies such as the Bereavement Authority of Ontario are not sure what to make of alkaline hydrolysis. Is it safe to just flush the liquefied organic material into the city sewage system? Are there health risks? Is it dangerous or just very, very creepy? Is it any creepier than cremation – or burial for that matter? For now, though, its main selling point is that alkaline hydrolysis is considered greener, or less carbon-intensive, than other methods.
According to the Ecology Action Centre, the average cemetery buries 4,500 litres of formaldehyde, 97 tonnes of steel and 56,000 board feet of hardwood per acre. A single cremation, which intuitively (and emotionally) seems so clean and efficient, uses as much fossil-fuel energy as an 800-kilometre car trip. Sulphur dioxide and mercury are released into the atmosphere, up the flue. That warm feeling on a January day in Winnipeg comes at an ecological cost.
Meanwhile, hydrolysis uses one-eighth the energy spent in cremation. There is no embalming, no casket or container. Even with cremation, there is always a container of some kind, including, in my experience, very expensive hardwood caskets with brass trimmings. So alkaline hydrolysis is marketing itself thusly: your green alternative.
When you’re dead, there are few options for what happens next. I don’t mean spiritually – that’s between you and your God or His/Her metaphysical substitute. I mean with the body. We all leave a remainder. Some more than others. You can bury it, sink it in the sea, leave it in the trees or on hilltops to be devoured by carrion birds – known technically as excarnation, a natural process of removing the flesh before earth burial (in Tibetan and Comanche cultures, known as sky burial) – or most commonly you can burn it. In Canada, the cremation rate varies by region, but in 2018 more than 61 per cent of the dead in Ontario and Manitoba and more than 71 per cent in Quebec were cremated. The national cremation rate is expected to rise to 76.9 per cent by 2023, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
For the funeral industry, cremation has always been a shoe that pinches. It’s an industry based on the pricing of intangibles: the meaning of life and death, ritual, the concept of “closure.” It has been able to translate the emotional turbulence of death into product (caskets, vaults, embalming) and real estate (cemeteries), but over the past 50 years has watched as a cultural revolution changed everything. Religion loosened its hold, and fewer people felt bound by tradition. Cremation was cheaper. People moved around – for work, for relationships – and the idea of a permanent resting place lost its appeal. Postmodernism struck the funeral industry: Meaning and ritual came down to personal taste.
So the industry reinvented itself. Funerals became “celebrations of life,” and funeral directors became event planners like those who booked weddings (and the cost of weddings, they noticed, was skyrocketing). If cremation was on the rise, it could surely be monetized: urns shaped like golf bags, garden watering cans or basketballs, depending on the hobbies of the dead in question. Cemeteries focused on marketing columbaria, the small, above-ground vaults for urns.
I once met a cemetery salesman who assured me that scattering human remains was illegal (not true) and that he himself once stepped on a human bone on a beach in British Columbia (unlikely, as most crematoria process the remains to a fine, biologically inert powder). His sales pitch was simple: Only the industry knows how to handle what we all leave behind – the rest of us are not equipped. It’s a powerful message. As Jessica Mitford, author of The American Way of Death, found out, people will pay to avoid dealing with death and will subcontract what is basically an existential puzzle (what’s to become of me?) to a professional.
But it’s possible to be too clinical. We like at least a little meaning with our rituals, especially the death rituals. “Belief in a future state,” writes Bertram S. Puckle in Funeral Customs: Their Origin and Development, a 1926 text, “presupposed a material existence after death, with corresponding material necessities. Food must be provided, weapons and clothing, and a supply of charms with which to ward off evil influences.” And so even today people are buried with iPhones or cremated with a blanket from home. This is not superstition. It is about doing the right thing, even if the thing is a complete mystery. Alkaline hydrolysis is maybe too much like a chemistry experiment to bear much meaning.
And the industry continues to adapt and innovate. An Italian company used to market the Capsula Mundi, a starch-based, acorn-like pod that calls for no headstone as it, with the body, dissolves in time as compost and produces a tree. Demand, it turns out, was slim. Now the company offers an egg-like urn for cremated remains that does the same job for US$457 – tree not included. (But again, there’s the carbon footprint of the cremation itself.)
Straight-up green burial – in a shroud, with no embalming, in a legally designated forest (the law frowns on “freelance” burial) – is sparsely available. The industry has never embraced it.
Maybe it expects greater things from alkaline hydrolysis. After all, if meaning is and always will be knit deeply into our death rituals, it ticks the right boxes: In life, we rejected plastic straws and used twirly light bulbs. In death, we were thus safely melted. Carve it into your tombstone.
In a gorgeous plot of land that was once the site of the Battle of Arnhem in World War II, the Trappistine Sisters of the Abbey of Koningsoord in the Netherlands have opened a new cemetery where they will be providing natural burials.
“Natural burial” is a term that describes the burial practices of humankind for the majority of history. The process avoids embalming chemicals, as well as steel or cement vaults that are placed underground to protect the coffin from the natural course of decomposition.
These natural burials are becoming more popular today, as they are substantially more eco-friendly than the modern burial. According to Order of the Good Death, a website that supports the return to natural burial, modern burial practices can take a hefty toll on the environment, and squander valuable non-renewable and non-biodegradable resources. They write:
“American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood … 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.”
At the Trappistines’ new cemetery, known as Koningsakker — King’s Field — the nuns are trying to remedy these ecosystem compromising factors by returning to the old methods of burial. Hettie van der Ven of Crux news reports that bodies there are not encased within a casket, but rather wrapped in a burial shroud made from linen, jute, hemp and wool that will biodegrade much faster. This avoids wasting natural resources and burying forever materials that would have impeded the decomposition process.
The sisters told Katholiek Nieuwsblad Foundation, a Dutch Catholic news organization, that they were inspired to open the cemetery by their American sister-house, The Trappistine Sisters of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Cross, in Virginia, who opened their own natural burial cemetery several years ago. The cemetery will provide the sisters with funds to sustain them, along with a book bindery and a restoration workshop.
While originally intended to serve as a Catholic cemetery, Koningsakker is now a public cemetery and the nuns welcome people of all faiths and walks of life, even those who come from foreign lands. The nuns feel that this was the right way to go, as it gives their graveyard an opportunity to impact a much wider range of the community. Riny Bergervoet, the cemetery’s location manager, said:
“Natural burials are a perfect fit for this day and age. At the end of their lives, people are looking for connection with the ground they came from and on which they are living … Choosing this as a resting place is a testimony to one’s identity. People know that we are praying for them on a daily basis, which they find very uplifting.”
CruxNews reports that Koningsakker currently only has four people buried on their property, but dozens have already reserved a plot. It’s only a matter of time before this “natural cemetery” will be full of people visiting their beloved lost.
Evie Vargas had always been drawn to death. That sounds morbid, or possibly extremely goth, but her interest wasn’t in the afterlife nor the aesthetics. Vargas wanted to pursue a profession rooted in service, and entering the death care industry was a calling — an inexplicable calling that, once she began work, seemed like destiny.
Throughout high school, Vargas considered attending mortuary science school, but worried she wouldn’t be able to handle the sight of a dead body. Still, she knew that a two-year program could lead to an associate’s degree, an apprenticeship, and eventually a mortician job.
To gauge her nerves, Vargas decided to go to a place that would expose her to death firsthand: a funeral home in Illinois.
There, she shadowed an embalmer, who offered her a part-time job after their first session. “He said he saw something in me,” Vargas says, still amazed at how prescient the offer turned out to be. “I didn’t have a license to embalm so I did makeup, dress, and casket.” She’s worked there since graduating from mortuary school.
Even after eight years in the industry, makeup and hair is still a special part of her job, Vargas says. As a funeral director, she does “basically everything” — administrative work, service preparation, meeting with family members, embalming bodies. But she thinks mortuary makeup work is uniquely intimate and significant.
Makeup plays a starring role at many funeral services — the last time family members will physically see their loved ones before the casket is closed. These services are usually done by a certified embalmer, a person tasked with cleaning and preparing the body, who takes on the burden of replicating a person’s likeness and essence. Makeup artists — whether embalmers, funeral directors, or freelance workers — find meaning in this ritualistic work of dressing a body, mulling over the details of its presentation, and receiving input from the family. It can help loved ones grieve, artists say, in remembering a person at their best.
Embalming a body and applying eyeshadow seem to demand different skills, but the work contributes to the body’s final presentation. Embalming is typically the first step; fluids are injected into a body during the process to slow its decomposition for the funeral ceremony.
According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, the process could give the body a more “life-like” appearance, although it isn’t always required. Amber Carvaly, a funeral director at Undertaking LA in California, doesn’t think embalming is necessary for most natural deaths, although it might firm up the skin more. She says that applying makeup on a body isn’t drastically different than working on a living person.
Carvaly has an array of products in her makeup kit — typically thicker theatrical makeup for discoloration or jaundiced bodies — but drugstore brands like Maybelline Cosmetics work fine. There are little techniques and tricks she’s picked up, for example, in applying lipstick on a dead person’s lips, which are much less firm.
She uses a pigmented gloss or mixes a dry lipstick to paint the color on. Vargas prefers using an airbrush kit for a more natural look, since it provides full coverage and is easier than applying foundation.
Carvaly doesn’t work with bodies as much as she likes to anymore, ever since cremation overtook burials as the preferred means of after-life care in 2015. While there is no proven correlation between price and popularity, cremation is cheaper than a burial. According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), the average burial and viewing costs $8,508, while the average cremation and viewing comes out to $6,260.
Post-death makeup is only a fraction of the cost for burials — an average of $250 per funeral, according to the NFDA — but the added costs aren’t worth it for some, Carvaly says. Many families struggle emotionally and logistically in the aftermath of a death, she adds. The logistics that go into the burial ceremony, especially dress and makeup, are often the last things on their minds.
A common complaint from families is that a body doesn’t look like their living relative. The embalmer might have parted their hair differently or used an unfamiliar lipstick color. Carvaly points out that family members can do makeup on their loved ones before the body is sent to a home. But if they’re uncomfortable with that, she encourages them to assist the embalmer with the makeup and presentation.
“Doing makeup with the family present is extremely rewarding,” she says, adding that family members’ input makes it much easier to capture the aesthetic essence of a person. It’s helpful for the families as well: “When you’re grieving, having a physical or artistic activity can help walk you through it.”
Years before Carvaly went to mortuary school in Los Angeles, she worked as a cosmetologist on film sets. She’s changed careers multiple times — from makeup to nonprofit work to the death care industry. Like Vargas, Carvaly is dedicated to the service aspect of her job, and she sees makeup as a physical manifestation of that service.
In her seven years of work, Carvaly’s found that most people are uncomfortable in the presence of a dead body, even in preparation for the burial. “I’m more than happy to do makeup for a family if this is something they don’t think they have the strength to do,” she says. “But I want them to know that they have options.”
On rare occasions, she brings along makeup or hair tools for families to touch up their loved ones at the service. She once worked on a woman with blonde, beehive-style hair that she struggled to recreate. At the funeral, Carvaly suggested that the woman’s daughters help her touch it up — a request they were initially shocked by.
“Allowing people to be a part of the funeral is important,” Carvaly says. “Keeping that veil of magic up prevents regular people from doing something very valuable.” Families shouldn’t hesitate to ask a funeral home if they can do their loved ones’ hair and makeup, which could reduce costs, she says.
Shifting social norms and new funeral practices, like eco-friendly burial options, have driven homes to find ways to increase profits — often at the expense of families, who are missing out on an opportunity to properly grieve, Carvaly explains.
“There is no law that prohibits people from coming into a home and requesting that they do makeup on the deceased,” she wrote in an e-mail. And while Carvaly feels that her job is a calling, the daily human interaction can be taxing. The most difficult part of being a funeral director, she says, is explaining why people have to pay for certain services that the home offers.
It’s what upsets people the most, but homes also have to pay for overhead expenses — the indirect costs of operating a business. Carvaly’s funeral home, Undertaking LA, opts to rent time and space from another crematory.
Carvaly’s funeral home co-founder, Caitlin Doughty, has found unprecedented success on YouTube under the account Ask A Mortician, a series where Doughty takes questions about her work and about death.
Demystifying death is a big part of Undertaking LA’s mission — to put the dying person and their family back in control of the dying process and the care of the body. It’s a liberal “death positive” approach, one that Carvaly likens to “breaking down the walls and windows” of a rigid centuries-old industry. Vargas feels similarly, and tries to destigmatize the death industry on her YouTube channel.
After a death occurs, families often immediately send the body to a funeral home and don’t interact with their loved ones until the ceremony. And sometimes, they’re taken aback by the body’s made up appearance. Reclaiming the makeup process can be a cathartic first step, as an unexpected outlet for grief, and eventually acceptance of the death itself.
My wife and I have been together for 30 years. Five years ago, she started dialysis, and that same year her mother’s divorce from my wife’s stepfather was finalized. Like many divorces, it pretty much split up the family.
My wife’s health is declining rapidly now, and she was also denied placement on the transplant list due to other health issues. We have been discussing her death, and my wife has expressed that she does not want her ex-stepfather or two of her siblings to attend her funeral.
When my wife made her wishes known to her mother, her mother said that my wife’s ex-stepfather has every right to attend the funeral because he raised her since she was about 8 years old, and that the two siblings also have every right to be at her funeral because they’re her brother and sister.
My wife explained that she did not want them at her funeral, because of how her ex-stepfather treated her when she was growing up and because the two siblings sided with him during the divorce. But her mother reiterated that she wouldn’t do anything to stop these people from attending the funeral.
I told my wife that the only way to make sure her wishes are met is to not tell her family about her passing until after she has been laid to rest. My wife agreed that this may be the only solution. Is this the right course to take?
San Antonio, Texas
I’m so sorry that your wife is ill, and I can only imagine that the prospect of her wishes not being met adds substantially to the stress you’re experiencing. But what seems to be getting lost in the understandable turmoil is that your wife is still here, which means she has agency over how she interacts with these people before the funeral happens.
Let’s back up for a minute. What’s complicated about funerals is that not everyone agrees on whom they’re for. Are funerals for the dying, comforted by the knowledge that they’ll be surrounded by friends and family when laid to rest? Or are funerals for the living, a chance to grieve in the company of others and get one final goodbye? Whose comfort and peace of mind are funerals for?
It sounds like you and your wife believe that funerals are for the person who died, and therefore this person should determine before her death who will be there. And it sounds like your mother-in-law believes that funerals are for the living, and therefore that your wife’s ex-stepfather and siblings will want to be there. You probably won’t resolve this philosophical difference—though understanding it may help you to be more compassionate toward your mother-in-law’s view—but you do agree on one thing: These family members mean to attend the funeral.
The question is, why? You don’t say what these relationships are like now—whether your wife is on speaking terms with these relatives; whether they know about her prognosis; whether they’ve shown any concern for her; whether, perhaps, you’ve kept your wife’s condition from them so they haven’t had an opportunity to share their concern. Nor do you say how your wife was mistreated growing up, or whether her mom has acknowledged the extent of the mistreatment. Maybe your wife spoke with her mom about her wishes because she’s no longer in contact with these relatives, but by not communicating with them directly, she puts herself in a position of powerlessness, which may be how she felt growing up and again during the divorce.
Banning people from a funeral is both a personal request and a strong public statement. At least in part, it’s a declaration to all who attend that these people hurt your wife deeply, and in this way, her pain would finally be acknowledged. This is what her wish is fundamentally about: a way for her to deal with the pain of the past.
Quite clearly, though, there’s a catch. If banning them from the funeral represents a final, public acknowledgment of her pain, the one person who needs that acknowledgment most won’t be alive to see it. So maybe it’s worth considering what might bring your wife even more peace than their absence at her funeral: the opportunity to be heard by them now. In my therapy practice, I’ve seen people with terminal illnesses spend the time they have left in different ways. Some people don’t change much—they hold on to their anger and resentments and die with them firmly in place. Others step far outside their comfort zone and grow tremendously in ways that feel immensely gratifying.
I don’t know which route your wife will choose, but here’s an option for her to consider. Instead of saying to her family members, essentially, “I’m angry with you and I get the last word!” (because by the time they learn about the funeral they missed, she’ll already be gone), she might say, “I’m angry with you, and I’d like to understand more about what happened between us before I die.”
She may learn that these relatives don’t realize how much they hurt her; or that they feel bad for having hurt her; or that they feel hurt by her, and there’s another side of the story she hadn’t been willing to consider before—her own role in the family drama. If that’s the case, there might be room for compassion on all sides, and while compassion won’t erase what happened in the past, it might pave the way for a greater understanding that allows a connection to find its way into their lives. And that small change can be potentially transformative, especially at this time in her life.
Of course, just because your wife does something differently doesn’t mean other people will. If they’re not willing to consider your wife’s point of view (remember, they don’t have to agree with it), if they place all the blame on her or are rude or insulting in these conversations, your wife can take a different tack. She can say she believes that the time to show respect is while a person is still alive, and if they can’t show her respect in life, it would be disingenuous of them to pretend to “pay respects” when she’s dead. For this reason, it would upset her to have them at her funeral, and if they genuinely want to pay respects, they can do so by respecting her preference for that day to go as she wishes.
They may say fine. Or they may still insist on coming, in which case she can ask them point-blank, “Why are you insisting on coming to a funeral for someone whose feelings you don’t care about and who doesn’t want you there?” Just hearing the stark truth in this way may encourage them to reconsider.
But here’s the thing: No matter what happens, your wife will have gotten to say her piece while she still can. Whether you have a private service or they attend her funeral, it won’t matter as much as the fact that she was proactive and forthright, spoke her truth directly to the people involved, and took control of what she had control over—how she wanted to live in a way that expressed her self-worth. Some people go their entire lives and never give themselves this opportunity. She doesn’t have to be one of them.
While it’s not something many people think about until faced with the issue, obtaining a credit report for a dead person is important. You may need to make sure the credit report is accurate and take stock of any creditors you need to notify of the death, or see if there’s any unresolved debt that you’re not aware of.
It’s not uncommon for criminals to try to take advantage of the fact that someone who has died isn’t checking their credit, which can increase the chances of identity theft and credit card fraud. That’s why it’s crucial to handle this process as quickly as possible.
Obtaining someone else’s credit report
In general, only the person who is the subject of the credit report should have access to it. But there are times when you may need to pull someone else’s report, such as the death of a loved one. Other instances may be when you’re checking someone’s credit as part of an application for a job or a rental property or if you’re helping someone work on their credit. Here are some commonly asked questions about obtaining someone else’s report.
How do you check someone’s credit history? You must have permission to check someone’s credit history, which can be as simple as them checking a box on a rental or job application. Once you have their permission, you can use their Social Security number, name and date of birth to do a background check that includes a credit history.
Can you look up someone else’s credit file? Yes, you can, but you have to have their permission and their personal information to be able to pull the correct report. This is common in situations where an agency or individual is helping another person repair their credit or address inaccuracies after identity theft.
Should you notify credit bureaus of a death? Yes, you should notify the three major credit bureaus as soon as possible after a death to ensure that the account is marked as deceased and no one else can open credit in the person’s name.
Obtaining the credit report of the dead
One of the most common situations where you will need to obtain someone else’s credit report is if a loved one dies and you are the financial power of attorney and/or executor of the estate. Here are the steps you need to take to obtain your loved one’s credit report after they’ve died and how to protect their legacy.
1. Collect all the paperwork
It’s a lot easier to begin the process of obtaining a credit report if you already have the paperwork needed. Each of the three different credit bureaus may have different requirements to be able to report someone dead and obtain their report, so you may want to call and find out what documents are required beforehand. The most commonly requested are:
A copy of the durable financial power of attorney, if applicable
Proof that you have been named executor of the estate
Testamentary letters from the probate court
An official copy of the death certificate
It’s a good idea to get at least one copy of these documents for each of the three bureaus, but you’ll also probably want a copy for yourself and another backup just in case.
2. File the will if necessary
Before you can start the process of obtaining the credit report, you’ll need to file the will with the probate court. To do this, you’ll need a certified copy of the death certificate, which can be obtained from your local health department for a small fee. If there is no will or named executor of the estate, you may need to file with the courts to be named as executor.
3. Submit a death certificate and other documents to the credit agencies
Once you have all of your documents gathered together, you’re ready to start submitting the paperwork to the credit bureaus. Remember that you’ll need to report the death and ask for the report from all three major bureaus: Experian, EXPGY, +2.72% TransUnion TRU, +1.66% and Equifax. EFX, +1.13% Along with the death certificate, power of attorney and testamentary letters, you’ll also need to include a cover letter explaining that the person has passed and that you need to obtain the reports to put their affairs in order. Your letter should also include:
The deceased’s name
Last used mailing address
Social Security number
You may also need to send along a check or pay via phone or online to obtain the report, depending on the bureau’s policies and how recently the credit report was last obtained.
4. Review the credit report
Go through the credit report thoroughly checking for any inaccuracies—name and address misspellings are common—and make note of any open accounts that need to be paid with the estate or notified of the death. It’s a common misconception that all debts are automatically cleared when a person dies, but this isn’t the case, so it’s important to know what will still need to be taken care of. Make sure to be on the lookout for anything unusual–it could be a sign of suspicious activity.
5. Update any creditors and the Social Security Administration
The last step is to update the credit bureaus, any outstanding creditors and the Social Security Administration of the death. You may be asking, “What happens to your credit report when you die?” Until the credit bureaus are notified that a death has occurred, nothing happens to the credit report. Once the proper documentation has been submitted and the request made, the bureaus will mark the account as deceased.
This means that no further credit will be extended in the person’s name and no additional accounts can be opened up, which helps protect against identity theft and credit card fraud. The death certificate should be all that’s needed to complete this step.