Final business: 5 steps to take when an employee dies

Beyond its obvious emotional impact, an employee’s death almost always leaves unfinished business for HR and payroll.

Follow these steps to help smooth the process when you’re notified of an employee’s death:

1. Ask the family for a death certificate (usually available about one to two weeks after the death) and whether a federal tax ID number exists for the estate. That may seem intrusive, but you should receive valid proof of death before cutting any final paycheck to a family member. Also, the tax ID number will be necessary if the final paycheck goes to the deceased person’s estate, rather than a relative.

2. Begin COBRA notification process. An employee’s death counts as a COBRA qualifying event for spouses and dependent children. If your organization must comply with COBRA, begin the paperwork necessary to notify your insurance carrier and survivors. Let survivors know how to file any life insurance claims as well.

3. Determine who should receive the employee’s final wages. In some cases, the final paycheck will be paid directly to the estate administrator. In others, the check may go to the employee’s spouse, children or other party. Check with your state’s wage and labor department for your state’s rules about paying final wages.

4. Record and report before-and-after-death payments carefully, if final wages are paid in the same year. Withhold FICA if the final paycheck is cut in the same year as the employee’s death.

Use IRS Form 1099-MISC to report any payments made after the employee dies. If the final paycheck is sent to an individual (a spouse, for example), include that person’s Social Security information on that form. If the final paycheck goes to the estate, list the estate Tax ID number.

At year-end, use IRS Form W-2 to report total compensation before death as well as any Medicare and Social Security deductions.

5. Don’t withhold employment taxes if final wages are paid the following year. Any outstanding wages that aren’t paid until the next calendar year aren’t subject to federal income, Social Security or Medicare taxes. Report the total amount paid after death in box 5, other income, on Form 1099-MISC.

You won’t need to file a W-2 at year-end if the final paycheck is issued in the next year. Check with your state’s wage and labor department about state reporting and withholding procedures.

Beyond logistics: How to help employees when a co-worker dies

It would be futile for managers to expect the colleagues of a deceased employee to go about business as usual. Here’s how HR should respond:

• Inform employees about the death as quickly as possible. Get to those who worked most closely with the deceased first —and privately—before making a general announcement.

• Allow employees to talk with each other about the death or to go home if they want to.

• Encourage employees to attend the funeral or memorial service—even if you have to hire temps to fill in while they’re out.

• Notify your employee assistance program about the death and remind employees that EAP counselors are trained and ready to talk them through the stress and grief they might experience. Counseling within three days after a death is most effective in helping people who are grieving.

• Engage the employee’s closest colleagues in planning a memorial function to honor their friend. Allow them to coordinate other commemorations, like a photo board, an article in the employee newsletter or a charity fundraiser in memory of the departed.

• Form a support group for coworkers to attend as they recover from the loss.