Q&A: When your spouse dies, there are immediate financial steps to take. Here’s a checklist

Dear Liz: What financial steps need to be taken right after your spouse dies?

Answer: Your attorney or accountant may have detailed checklists to guide you through the many tasks involved. In general, though, you’ll be settling the estate, notifying appropriate parties, signing up for any benefits and shutting down potential identity theft.

To start:

Get 10 to 12 certified copies of the death certificate (ask the funeral home for these).
Find any estate planning documents, such as a will or a living trust, to start the process of settling the estate. That may require opening a probate case at the county courthouse.
If you don’t already have an estate planning or probate attorney, consider hiring one for help.
Contact your spouse’s employer about any life insurance or retirement benefits, such as a 401(k) or pension.
File a claim if your spouse had life insurance.
Call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 to ask about survivor benefits. If you and your spouse were already receiving Social Security benefits, one payment ends at your spouse’s death, and you’ll get the larger of the two checks from now on.
If your spouse served in the military, contact the Veterans Administration to inquire about additional benefits.
Cancel your spouse’s health insurance.
Contact banks, brokerages, lenders and credit card companies to inform them of the death and close accounts or transfer them to your name alone.
Notify the three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
Delete or memorialize social media accounts.
There are a few things to avoid as well. A big one: Don’t give away money or assets prematurely. These may be needed to settle the estate or you may want more time to make good decisions. If you’re getting pressure from family members or anyone else, refer them to your attorney.

Be careful about making big changes, such as moving or selling a home, in the next year or so because grief can impair your decision-making abilities.

Don’t try to do all this yourself. Let the attorney assist with estate-settling tasks and hire a tax pro to file your spouse’s final tax return. Also, consider talking to a fee-only financial planner. You may have options for payouts from retirement accounts, life insurance and Social Security, for example, and your choices could dramatically affect your future standard of living.

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  1. June W Lovell says

    I’ve been widowed twice. A friend died recently and Covid hasn’t made the process easier for the survivor. The biggest takeaway for those who survive a public pensioner, where pension is wholly or partially inherit-able, is the issuing agency MAY claw the entire month’s pension back until death cert and contracts are reviewed. I’m not a Social Security recipient but I understand an SSA check is whisked away in total regardless of the day of death. It took far longer than promised for my friend to receive the 60% she was due as the survivor for the month her husb died. I think I ordered 15 death certs the second time: step-children who are heirs of insurance policies, etc., EACH had to submit a claim with certified copy of death cert. Ex wives also needed copies. Be prepared to be cut off from lending institutions/insurance companies, brokers, etc., if you are not a beneficiary (step-children were beneficiaries of insurance policy: as soon as I called to determine the process and mentioned my husband’s death, i was informed i was not entitled to any info (kindly informed). Same goes for policy with ex-wife as beneficiary. Be sure to ask all the questions before you mention you are now a widow/widower. And, good luck, be patient. Review your Advance Health Care Directive and update your own beneficiary list.

  2. marilyn Johns says

    Hi! I raised my grandson and I’m looking for a way to leave him money that will continue on a regular basis after I’m gone. I have a friend that can handle my trust but I’m looking for a bank or institution to issue money on a continuing basis in his name so that it can not become community property. I’m looking for a fiduciary services.