Your loved one has passed away, and you're mired in choosing a funeral home, presiding over the floral arrangements and reaching out to family and friends, among other heaps upon heaps of busywork. To add to the pile, you've just received an over-payment refund, a dividend payment or some other type of check made out to the departed. Or was it from the departed made out to you? And how can you cash a check after someone has died, anyway?
You can't deposit the check into your own account or even into a joint account you might have held with the deceased unless the payee endorses the check over to you. Dead people can't make endorsements, so that's an issue – but it doesn't mean you don't have options.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
If the deceased didn't have a POD account or the check isn't written out to you, you'll have to deal with the executor.
Check for a POD Account
If your loved one had a payable-on-death (POD) account, it means that she named a beneficiary to receive any money left in that account upon her death. The money automatically passes to the beneficiary.
The named beneficiary, which in this case is hopefully you, can try to deal with the bank informally with this type of account. Take your ID, the death certificate, and any other paperwork that proves your relationship to the deceased to the bank, and – barring any further complications – the bank might simply accept the check made out to the account holder for deposit into the POD account.
What If the Deceased Wrote You a Check?
You don't have to worry about probate or much else if the deceased wrote you a check before she died. What do you need to do to cash a check from the deceased? If the check is made out to you, the answer is "not much."
The check became legal as soon as the deceased wrote it, so you can take it to your bank and deposit it just as you would any other check. As long as the deceased's account is still open with money in it, the bank should honor the check.
It's best to act quickly, however. In some states, such as California, the bank typically will honor checks for up to 10 days after death. After that, the account might be frozen while the executor sorts out the deceased's final bills. At this point, you'll likely have to file a claim against the estate for the check amount and get in line with the deceased's other creditors. If there's enough money in the probate estate, the executor should pay out your check.
Dealing With the Executor
It's time to get the executor or administrator of the deceased's estate involved if more straightforward options aren't available.
By state law, the executor or administrator of a deceased person's estate can endorse checks, including checks on principal or interest, tax refunds or payments for goods and services, so it makes sense to bring the check to the executor and ask that the payment be honored. The executor might also act as the payee in the deceased's place. Keep in mind, however, that recurring benefit and annuity payments are not valid after the death of the payee and must be returned to their respective certifying agencies.
If there is no executor or administrator in place, checks that aren't POD or those that aren't made out to you should be returned to the certifying agency to determine whether payment is due and who should receive it.
Acting as Executor
You can always petition the court to be named as executor or administrator of the estate yourself, assuming the deceased didn't nominate someone else in her will. If the court approves your petition, this would grant you the authority to cash checks payable to the deceased on behalf of the estate. But that process involves gathering the death certificate, filing a petition with the clerk's office or courthouse to become officially appointed, then requesting the deceased taxpayer's ID number or Employer Identification Number from the IRS. You must then open a special estate bank account to manage the deceased's affairs.
The check now becomes part of the deceased's estate, and you can use it to pay her bills and expenses. Any money left over would be distributed to the heirs according to the terms of the deceased's will or, if she didn't leave a will, according to state law.
Probate is a serious responsibility that requires a mountain of work and can last months or even years, so if you're considering this option, the check in question had better be a pretty big one.
- Internal Revenue Service: Estate of Deceased Individual
- Internal Revenue Service: Form SS-4
- Internal Revenue Service: Instructions for Form SS-4
- Virginia Court Clerk’s Association: Probate in Virginia
- Find Law Codes: California Code, Commercial Code - COM § 4405
- Cornell University: 31 CFR 240.15 – Checks Issued to Deceased Payees