Protect an Elderly Relative’s Identity During Life and After
Throughout one’s lifetime, an individual takes great care to ensure credit card, financial, and other personal information remains private. While identity theft is a threat for many people, the elderly, in particular, are often approached by scammers. Identity theft is not only a concern during one’s lifetime; some fraudulent parties specifically target the identities of the elderly or deceased. Identity theft risks the security of one’s assets and can be costly to resolve. In North Carolina alone, the Department of Justice reports that approximately 400 people are victims of identity theft each year, and three of our state’s cities rank in the Top 100 riskiest metropolitan areas: Rocky Mount, Goldsboro, and Fayetteville.
Our Chapel Hill elder law attorneys previously discussed fraudulent companies that target the elderly through Medicaid scams
and healthcare scams
. Protecting the identity of an aging loved one involves careful review and maintenance of their assets. When it comes to preventing identity theft of a deceased relative, a few issues might create vulnerabilities:
Failing to close accounts. The executor generally is responsible for notifying financial institutions of the account holder’s death, issuing death notices in newspapers, and submitting requests for account closures. If an account or two remains open, statements could be intercepted long after the estate is otherwise closed and the family have moved on.
Relying on credit bureaus. Similar to the previous item regarding account closures, some individuals might be under the impression that as long as the three major credit bureaus are properly notified of the individual’s death, all other institutions will be notified automatically. Best practice involves contacting every account provider, insurance company, and financial institution affiliated with the decedent.
Carelessly disposing of identifications. Driver licenses, passports, Social Security cards, and other forms of identification should be properly discarded or kept in a safe place. Disposing of sensitive documents in the trash could allow them to fall into the hands of identity thieves. The decedent’s driver license, along with an official copy of the death certificate, can be presented at most North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicle locations to ensure records are accurate. It is not required by law to surrender the United States passport of a deceased person (some families elect to keep passports for sentimental purposes), but surviving family members who elect to cancel a deceased person’s passport must submit it with an official copy of the death certificate to the U.S. Department of State.
Surviving family members might feel inclined to print a lengthy obituary to honor the decedent. Although this is done with the best intentions, an obituary including highly specific aspects of the decedent’s life could reveal personally identifying information that could be used for identity theft
purposes. Family members can still pay tribute, but it is helpful to omit the decedent’s maiden name, address, birth date, and similarly identifiable details that a scammer could easily use.
Share this information with an executor to implement as part of thorough estate administration. If possible, discuss an elderly relative’s wishes for disposition of their personal documents while they are alive. Elder care planning often focuses on long-term care and preserving assets while funding healthcare in retirement. Individuals should also consider the risk of identity theft and the conflicts it could manifest. Fraudulent loans or debts taken under a decedent’s stolen identity could evolve into liens on the decedent’s assets or otherwise delay and complicate estate distribution.
By Attorney Katie Muhlenkamp