When your spouse dies, their affairs need to be set in order. You might find yourself planning a funeral, paying bills and closing accounts. The list of things you need to do can seem endless, especially during a time when you are also grieving. These emotions can be especially strong if the death is unexpected.
Get organized and take inventory
Start by making a list of everything you need to do, so you can check off the things you have accomplished and make a note of what still needs to be done. "We start tackling tasks and then we forget who we talked to and where we put things," says Dana Anspach, a certified financial planner and CEO of Sensible Money in Scottsdale, Arizona. "The answer could be a binder. It might mean enlisting the help of a family member to log emails and phone calls and make a checklist. Taking the time to get organized is really important."
Here's what to do when a spouse dies:
- Locate the will.
- Notify your spouse's employer.
- Ask your spouse's former employers about benefits.
- Notify your employer.
- Request copies of the death certificate.
- Notify all insurance companies, and find out about benefits due to beneficiaries.
- Notify the Social Security Administration.
- Change property titles to be in your name.
- Change titles on all jointly held bank, investment and credit accounts.
- Send a letter to all three major credit bureaus.
- Notify your accountant, tax preparer, financial advisor, attorney and other professionals.
- If there is a child in college, notify the financial aid office.
- Close email accounts and delete or memorialize social media accounts.
Get the will and estate plan
You will need to look at your spouse's will and estate plan. "Gather the documents you will need," Anspach says. You will need to name an executor if one is not named in the will. The surviving spouse may or may not be the best choice for executor if one is not named. You may need a probate attorney to guide you through the process.
Get multiple death certificates
Request multiple copies of the death certificate. "One thing you have to have, universally, is a death certificate," says Mark Brown, managing partner at Brown & Company in Denver, Colorado. "Get 10 or 15 copies. Every entity will need that."
Contact your legal and financial professional advisors
You will need to inform various professionals that your spouse has passed away. Notify your accountant, attorney, financial advisor and banks. "Those three or four contacts will probably know 90% of what's going on," Brown says.
Also, contact your spouse's employer and former employers for possible retirement benefits as well as your employer.
You will also need to report the death to the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs if your spouse is a veteran.
Review your bills and payment schedule
Make a plan to continue to pay bills. "If your spouse handled all finances it will be overwhelming to figure out which bills they paid from which accounts," Anspach says. "If it is all online, that can make it more challenging to track things down, figure out passwords and find out how to access those accounts."
You can start canceling services you no longer need. "Review auto-renew payments and prescription auto refills," says Ann-Margaret Carrozza, a New York estate planning and elder law attorney. "And contact the three credit reporting agencies to ward off identity theft." However, Carrozza recommends keeping a spouse's cell phone until you have settled financial transactions. "Various institutions will want text authentication," Carrozza says.
Asses how your income and expenses will change
Your retirement income might change after a spouse dies. If both members of a couple are receiving Social Security, one check will end. Whether pension payouts continue will depend on choices made at retirement. If the deceased spouse was still working, you will also lose that paycheck.
Living expenses for one person are often not much less than living expenses for two. Your mortgage or rent will probably remain the same. Some expenses may even increase if you need to hire someone to do something your spouse previously did. David D'Eredita, a financial planner and founder of Rise Private Wealth Advisors in Tucson, Arizona, lost his wife unexpectedly when she was only 28 years old. She was a stay-at-home mom. "So, income replacement wasn't so much the primary concern as the child care expenses that now became astronomical," D'Eredita says. "Child care is not cheap these days."
Avoid making major decisions
Anspach advises clients not to make any major financial decisions for a year, like selling your house or making a lump sum investment. "You are emotional and looking for advice. It's easy to get pressured into making a decision that might not be right for you," Anspach says. "Give yourself permission to be emotional and not make any decision because you recognize you are grieving, and your head isn't clear."
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