Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
One of the worst crises any of us can face is the death of our partner, significant other, or spouse. It’s an excruciating loss, and the last thing you want to face is your finances after the death of a spouse.
But unfortunately, death is a natural part of life. Survivors must go on and continue to move forward with their lives. Managing your finances after the death of your husband or wife is a tall order, but following this checklist can help make it easier, especially if you’re still processing the loss.
Having experienced the loss of several of my close family members, I can attest to the fact that no one feels like dealing with finances when they’re grieving a loss. It’s so crucial that you discuss the matters long before something occurs. Look at it as a way to take the undue burden off your loved ones when they’re grief-stricken.
If you’re managing your finances after the death of a spouse, here are the three areas you need to manage with the steps for navigating forward.
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Part One: 11 Steps You May Need to Take After a Spouse Dies
I’ve often heard people wish there were a checklist of what to do when a spouse dies. Many people aren’t sure how to figure out funeral arrangements and all the rest, let alone finances. Here are the steps you may need to take when your spouse dies.
- Call a Trusted Family Member
One of the most crucial first steps is calling someone you trust, who isn’t grieving at the same level you are right now. Ask him or her to contact other family members and friends for you. Depending on your comfort level, you may have them help you walk through the subsequent steps.
2. Contact the Funeral Home
Someone will need to contact the funeral home to make arrangements. Fortunately, funeral directors are well-versed in the process and are ready to help guide you through.
3. Locate the Will or Trust
You must locate the will or trust as soon as possible. Sometimes the deceased may have left information in their will regarding his/her wishes for funeral arrangements, so time is of the essence. Generally, the will and other documentation will be filed with an attorney, tucked away in a lockbox or a safety deposit box. The attorney will also be able to guide you if the estate must be probated.
4. Locate Your Partner’s Social Security Number
You will need this number to access benefits and paperwork, so you must track it down quickly.
5. Contact Your Attorney
When someone dies, there are many legal hoops to jump through, especially if they haven’t done end-of-life or estate planning. Work with your attorney to understand the estate settlement process and your state’s laws to protect yourself. Determine if the state will require conservatorship or guardianship for any surviving minor children (especially for blended families and adoptions).
6. Contact Your Significant Other’s Current Employer
You should contact your partner’s current employer to inquire about any benefits that may be available. You should obtain any benefits due, and check on retirement or pension plans. If you or your children are covered through your spouse’s medical insurance, you’ll also need to ask about continuing coverage.
7. Contact Former Employers
Many folks don’t think about contacting other employers their spouse may have had in the past, but this can be a mistake because you don’t want to leave any benefits on the table. Call up any former employers of your spouse and inquire about any benefits, life insurance policies, pensions, or old 401(K)s.
8. Notify Your Employer
Of course, you’ll probably be away from work for a few days or weeks, but many people forget that the death of a spouse or significant other is a “life event” that can trigger benefit decisions. If you’ve elected to have coverage for a spouse through your employer, it could mean additional death benefit claims paid out to you. You should also inquire about family leave time and what they afford you while you get back on your feet.
9. Notify All Insurance Companies
In the event of a death, you should file a death benefits claim for both life and health insurance. This claim triggers the insurance provider to send out claim forms and instructions. Keep in mind that it can take weeks to receive funds, so get started as soon as possible. Funeral and burial costs are often high (along with hospital bills), so you may need a method to cover your expenses until death benefits come through.
Be sure to request multiple copies of certified death certificates because many institutions and organizations will only accept a certified copy. You will need these to draw from any benefits that your spouse has arranged.
10. Notify Your Accountant and Tax Preparer
You will still need to file taxes for your spouse for the year of death and pay anything owed. There could be complicated issues following the death, so it’s always best to have a financial professional help you figure out how to proceed safely.
11. Locate All Financial and Brokerage Statements
Reach out to the holders of any financial or brokerage investments and arrange to have necessary changes made. You may need to transfer items to your name, add another beneficiary, or make other shifts.
Part Two: 11 Organizations You May Need to Contact
When a spouse passes away, you’ll need to start reaching out to many different organizations. It can certainly feel like a lot, especially when you’re bereaved, but try to take care of a few items per day for the next few weeks. Doing it now, even though it’s painful, will ensure that you don’t miss any windows for filing or overlook something that could cost more down the road.
- Social Security Administration
To report a spouse’s death or apply for social security benefits, call 1-800-772-1213 or visit your local Social Security office. Keep in mind many social security-related organizations will appear to be “official,” but you should be sure to contact the office of the Social Security Administration only. If your spouse was receiving benefits, you could qualify for some of them (depending on the circumstances and qualifications).
2. Veteran’s Administration
If your spouse or partner served in the military, you should reach out to the Veteran’s Administration to learn what benefits might be due to you. Be sure you have copies of their military discharge papers because you will likely need to present them to the Administration.
3. Members Associations
If your spouse was a member of any professional organizations, clubs, membership associations, or unions, you should contact them to see if the organization provides any death benefit.
4. Financial Institutions
It’s critically important that you go over all information and instructions with your partner before something happens suddenly. At the minimum, you should know where they hold accounts, so you can reach out to the financial institutions to tie up loose ends. Be sure to find out of there’s a safety deposit box. Ask if your spouse held any Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). Finally, ask about any additional accounts like Money Market accounts, Certificates of Deposit (CDs), qualified retirement accounts, and non-qualified accounts (non-retirement).
5. The State Office
Another often forgotten item is a driver’s license. Contact the state office to cancel your partner’s license so no one can steal their identity or misuse their card.
6. Any Creditors
Don’t assume any of your spouse or partner’s debt until you have talked to a reputable and qualified attorney about the situation. Find out what they owe from any mortgage holder, lender, or credit card company.
7. Auto and Homeowner’s Insurance Companies
Contact your auto and homeowner’s insurance companies to ensure any vehicle or property is fully insured until it’s either sold or transferred.
8. The Utility Companies
Reach out to your utility companies to arrange a shut-off or set up continued service in the name of the new responsible party (in many cases, that will be you).
9. Office of the Court or Your State Social Services
If your spouse or partner was married before or has children, you should reach out to see if there’s child support or alimony involved. Have a lawyer help you navigate what (if any) obligation falls on you or your spouse’s estate.
10. Financial Aid Office
If your child is in college or private school, reach out to the institution following the death of your spouse. Depending on the rules of the school and your financial situation, your child may qualify for more financial aid or assistance.
11. All Three Credit Bureaus
Send a letter to contact Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Request a copy of your spouse’s reports so you’re aware of all debts. Asked the bureaus to add a notification in the credit report that says “Deceased—Do NOT Issue Credit,” so someone can’t take out new credit in their name.
Part Three: Documents You May Need
Simple decisions can seem overwhelming after you have lost a spouse or significant other. While this list may not include every document you need for every situation, it may help you get started during this difficult time. See if you can collect each form and get multiple copies of each (when possible).
- Funeral home assignment form
- The deceased’s driver’s license
- Certified death certificate(s)
- Court documents appointing the executor of the estate
- Obituary notice
- Life insurance policy
- Life insurance claims form
- Divorce judgment
- Notarized affidavit of children
- Police report
Collect these documents and keep them in a safe place, where you can access them as needed. Certain situations will require certified or notarized copies, so keep that in mind too.
Part Four: Actions You May Need to Take
- Change Property Titles
You may need to change property titles on real estate. Be sure to remove your spouse or partners’ name and update the insurance policies as well.
2. Change Jointly Held Titles
You’ll also need to change the titles on jointly held bank, investment, and credit accounts.
3. Change Registration Titles on Vehicles
You’ll need to change the registration title on any vehicles, whether you plan to keep them or sell them. Be sure to reach out to vehicle insurance companies too.
4. Close Accounts that Your Spouse Held in Their Name Only
If your spouse had any bank accounts in their name only, you would need to contact the account institutions and close out the accounts.
5. Work with a Financial Advisor
As you prepare to move forward, it will be helpful to work with a trusted financial advisor. An advisor will help you update your financial plan to adjust to your “new normal.” They’ll help you make adjustments based on the benefits you’ve received and create a budget that works for your new income and expenses.
You should work with your advisor to revisit your retirement plan and consider what it will look like going forward. You may need to reallocate some funds or shift some assets to ensure you’ve planned enough to take care of your needs for years to come. Weigh any decisions about cashing out investments, and be sure to explore the long-term ramifications.
If you’re going through the devastating loss of your loved one, it’s important to know that you aren’t alone. There are many support groups and professionals that can help you navigate the emotional side of the grieving process.
If the unthinkable occurs, I’ve compiled several helpful tools, including my three-part series of checklists for getting through a financial crisis in the resource library. Even in this difficult time, getting your finances taken care of will help you feel more in control and bring you a sense of peace, so you can grieve the loss and celebrate the life of your significant other.
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