It’s common for the surviving spouse to feel a bit lost upon the death of their partner. You may not have immediate access to all the household assets or know what information you need to put together for the estate.
This time can be very confusing, so it’s essential to feel that you can enlist your financial team. Your financial advisor, CPA, and attorney should work together to help you manage the transition.
Here are the steps you should take to make the process easier for you as you navigate your new phase of life. You can delegate some of these to a trusted relative or friend to give yourself more time to grieve.
1. Death Certificate: Request multiple copies
For many of these steps, you’ll need a death certificate. Make sure you request multiple copies. Some companies may require an actual certificate and not a copy, so ask what they want when contacting them.
These are not necessarily in the exact order you’ll end up taking them, but the more urgent suggestions are listed first.
2. Locate the will
Hopefully, you and your spouse have both made wills and know where they’re located. If you’re not sure, check where your spouse kept important papers. It could be in a file cabinet or a safe deposit box.
If you’re having difficulty, your estate planning attorney will likely be able to help you since they should have a copy on file.
3. Talk to your estate planning attorney
Every state has different probate requirements, so your lawyer can guide you through the process. “Proving” the will is often the first step taken by the probate court. They’ll also be able to help you with reading the will and settling the estate.
It may take some time for the estate to finally be distributed, depending on how the attorney has set up the estate planning documents. At some point, you may want to revisit your own will, but that doesn’t need to be taken care of right away unless you have an urgent reason for doing so.
If you don’t already have an estate planning attorney, consider asking your financial advisor for a recommendation.
4. Talk to your financial advisor
It would be best if you alerted your advisor about the death as soon as possible. They’ll be able to get the paperwork ready to make the necessary changes. You can discuss with them if they have any recommendations for you regarding your budget, financial plan, or investments.
They most likely have experience in dealing with widows and widowers, so they can help guide you through some of your decisions.
5. Call the Social Security Administration
You will need to call or visit your local office in person. You may qualify for survivor’s benefits, whether or not your spouse had already begun collecting Social Security retirement payments.
Most likely, you’ll need your spouse’s Social Security number for this, so have it handy when you call or visit.
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6. Call the Veterans Administration if your spouse served in the US armed forces
Similarly, you may be able to claim benefits from the VA, depending on the length of service. There may be some funding that you were not previously aware of, so it’s always a good idea to check with them when you have a military spouse.
7. Collect documents
You’ll find it’s much easier to gather all the necessary items before you begin contacting people. In addition to the will and Social Security information, you’ll want birth, marriage, divorce (if applicable), and death certificates. In addition, find tax returns, banking, credit card, investment account, retirement account, pension plan, and loan statements (including mortgage) as applicable.
It will also help have your house deed, car titles, insurance statements, and bills in one spot.
8. Let employers know
There may be benefits that you can receive as the spouse of a deceased employee. Often you can start your search with the Human Resources department. They’ll be able to advise you if there’s a different number you should call.
There are several employers you should call, not just the current or most recent company.
Your spouse’s current/most recent employer if retired
Find out what benefits may be available to beneficiaries, as well as the details of the retirement plan or pension. If your family is covered through your spouse’s health insurance, contact them as well to make sure you can continue coverage.
Frequently, a spouse’s death is considered a “life event” that may allow you to claim some benefits. Check with your HR to determine whether you are eligible for any additional aid.
Your spouse’s previous employers
You may have access to a pension, retirement account, insurance payout, or other benefit you or your spouse may not have been aware of.
10. Notify insurance companies
It does take some time for life insurance and health insurance companies to process death claims, so you want to do this sooner rather than later. They will likely send you paperwork to fill out. Ask for instructions because the forms aren’t always clear.
For your property and casualty insurance, you’ll need to remove your spouse’s name to put everything in your name. Check policies for auto, homeowners, umbrella, etc.
11. Change titles and beneficiaries on jointly-held property
You’ll need to change everything into your name only, whether it’s the house, banking accounts, credit card accounts, or investment accounts. Your financial advisor can prepare and expedite the paperwork for the accounts that they manage for you.
For accounts in your name, such as pensions and retirement accounts, you may want to change beneficiaries if your spouse is the sole beneficiary with no contingent beneficiaries listed. If you already have contingent beneficiaries designated, this is not an immediate need.
12. Send a letter to the three credit bureaus
You’ll want to get the credit reports for your spouse so that you’re aware of all the credit liabilities. You should advise the bureaus to add the notification that your spouse is deceased so no one can attempt to take credit out in their name. This helps protect you from fraud.
13. Let your tax advisor know
They’ll need to file taxes for your spouse for the year in which s/he died and have the taxes paid. Depending on your situation, this can get tricky, so let them advise you. Because the taxes aren’t due right away, this isn’t an immediate need, but it still should be done in a timely fashion, so they’re not late in filing.
14. Call the financial aid office if you have a student in college
Your child may be eligible for more financial aid or other assistance, so let them know.
15. Cancel your spouse’s subscriptions and memberships
Any gym or club memberships in your spouse’s name should be canceled, so you don’t continue to pay those bills. If you have a joint membership, at some point, you’ll want to investigate what other options are available to you.
16. If your spouse had business interests, let their business attorney know
The lawyer can take charge of any processes that your spouse put in place for this contingency.
Do you need help dealing with the financial issues surrounding the death of your spouse? Please give us a call at 619.255.9554 or email us to set up an appointment.
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