Dear Liz: Do dead people have to worry about identity theft?
I ask because I’m dealing with all of the papers that my recently deceased husband left behind, including canceled checks and statements going back to the 1970s, as well as all the pay stubs from his entire working career.
He also had a bunch of paperwork from his deceased parents. Do I have to shred his parents’ stuff? Or can I just throw it into the recycle bin?
In addition, my husband had a lot of annuities and 457 deferred compensation plans, which were converted to additional service credit on his pension or rolled over into IRAs before he died. Can I shred the statements for those? They go back 20 years! Can I shred most of those old canceled checks? All of the pay stubs? The really old tax returns? Help!
Answer: First of all, condolences on your loss. And I’m especially sorry you have to sort through such a mound of paperwork while you grieve.
There are, indeed, scam artists who target the identities of the recently deceased. That’s one of the reasons it’s important for the executor of an estate to inform all the deceased person’s creditors of the death.
Typically, that information is then relayed by the creditors to the credit bureaus. The bureaus also consult a death list maintained by the Social Security Administration, although it often takes a few months for a name to show up on that list.
In any case, you’ll probably want to pull your husband’s credit reports from the three bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) to see whether he’s properly listed as deceased; if not, request that the notation be added.
Most of the time, being listed as dead will shut off opportunities for identity theft as many people who’ve been incorrectly listed this way will attest. (Some people have found themselves with “deceased” notations on their credit reports after a joint account-holder died and the creditors reported the information incorrectly to the bureaus.)
But you still want to be careful about handling any paperwork that has private personal information on it. When in doubt, shred.
Given the amount of paperwork you need to process, you might consider hiring a professional shredding service that can come to your house and zip through your piles in a matter of minutes. (A local accountant, bank or mortgage lender may be able to provide you a referral.)
For guidance on what you need to keep, I consulted John W. Roth, senior federal tax analyst for tax research firm CCH Inc.
“Generally speaking, all the [canceled] checks can be shredded except for those that are needed to substantiate deductions on their tax returns for the last three years,” Roth said. “Keep the W-2 and 1099 statements that relate to the last three years of tax returns.”
Roth recommends you hang on to older tax returns as well, although you can shred any accompanying documentation. You may need to keep the annuity and 457 paperwork as well, since those can help establish how much of his (and now your) retirement benefits are taxable. Consult a tax pro for details.
You also might want to consult a professional in this case an estate planning attorney about whether to keep any of your in-laws’ documents.
Finally, consider whether you plan to apply for Social Security someday based on your husband’s earnings. If so, you’ll want to make sure his earnings were properly recorded with Social Security before shredding the pay stubs.
This doesn’t have to be an onerous task; just check the earnings record in his latest Social Security benefit statement, the one that every worker receives annually. If you see any problems, such as a year in which he worked but wasn’t credited with any earnings, you can dig out the pay stubs from the appropriate year to correct the record with the Social Security Administration.