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An Essentials Checklist for the Recently Widowed

Kimberly Foss, CFP®, CPWA®

Sr. Wealth Advisor

Summary

An essentials checklist to help the newly bereaved with next steps following a spouse’s death.

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Nothing can prepare you for the shock, pain, and bewilderment of losing a spouse. Bereavement plunges the surviving spouse into a lonely and vulnerable world where everything familiar can seem absent. It’s often been said that the longest journey begins with a single step. No matter how dark things may seem in the immediate onset of bereavement, a surviving spouse can find some amount of solace by taking one step at a time. The goal of this checklist is to remove any guesswork about the steps to take following a spouse’s death.

 

1–29 days after the death of a spouse

  • If your spouse was employed, notify the employer about their death. Arrange for a friend or family member to pick up personal effects from the workplace. You should also ask about death benefits, life insurance, pension, and employer-sponsored retirement plans.
  • If your spouse was a military veteran, contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for information about burial and other benefits.
  • Obtain several copies (we recommend five to 10) of the death certificate from the funeral director.
  • Notify the local Social Security Administration office about your spouse’s death. The funeral home can also do this for you. If you have dependent children, Social Security benefits may be available to them. Benefits may also be available to you as the surviving spouse.
  • Contact your health insurance representative (or a human-resources representative at your or your spouse’s employer) to cancel your spouse’s health insurance. This is also an opportunity to review your own coverage and that of any dependents. Avoid making major changes, as it’s still early in the grieving process for consequential decisions. Ensure that you and any dependents have coverage in place—that’s your main concern at this time.
  • Find your spouse’s original will (not a copy). Contact your attorney to arrange filing of the will for probate. Some states require filing within 10 days of death.
  • If your spouse owned or was partner in a business, begin discussing business continuity arrangements. You may want to involve your attorney, financial advisor, and an accountant.
  • Make claims on any life insurance policy or other assets naming you as beneficiary. You should also roll over any retirement accounts, such as an IRA or 401(k), to your name.

 

30–60 days after the death of a spouse

  • List all your monthly bills, including mortgage or rent; car payment; health, vehicle, and life insurance premiums; utilities and internet service; credit cards; and any other recurring expense. Prioritize those that are due earliest to avoid late fees.
  • Go to the bank. If you and your spouse had a joint account, keep it open for a year. If your attorney has instructed you to open an estate account, take care of it now. If your spouse had an individual account, ask the financial institution for an affidavit form you can use to gain access to or close the account. If you’re not able to access the account via an affidavit furnished by the financial institution, you’ll need to use an attorney.
  • Gather documents, including your spouse’s will and death certificate (multiple copies), your marriage license and birth certificates, your spouse’s Social Security number and insurance policies (especially life), recent bank and investment account statements, documentation of any IRA or 401(k), last year’s tax return, vehicle titles, and loan documents. Keep everything in a bag that travels well: you’ll visit lots of offices as you sort through these matters.
  • Begin applying for survivor benefits, including veteran’s (if your spouse was a service member), Social Security, and pension. Every organization has unique requirements, so check their website before making an appointment. Contact the provider of any employer-sponsored or private life insurance policy. After providing them with a death certificate, ask about the options available for receipt of proceeds, whether in a lump sum or annual payout over a period of time. Your financial advisor or accountant can help identify which options are most advantageous.
  • Use a small notebook to write down important dates, deadlines, and meetings. Take notes of conversations with your banker, attorney, and financial advisor.
  • Take no major action and make no long-term commitments. You’re grieving, so your state of mind for sound decision-making could be unreliable due to intense emotions. Put off big decisions such as selling a home, leaving a job, or making expensive purchases.
  • Hold on to your spouse’s cell phone for access to potentially relevant financial information.
  • Remove your spouse from property deeds, such as home and car.
  • Remove your spouse as co-owner and beneficiary of financial accounts.
  • If you have a child in college and you have parent loans, contact the university or the lender.

 

3–6 months after the death of a spouse

  • If a vehicle is in your spouse’s name only, contact the local DMV for title and registration change forms. Also contact the car insurance carrier about your spouse’s death.
  • Create an income and expenses worksheet or use a spreadsheet program such as Excel to map out finances. Knowing and understanding cash flow can help reduce your stress level. You should also make a list of all bank and investment account balances, as well as any retirement account owned by you or your spouse.
  • Make an appointment with your financial advisor. With worksheets in hand, your advisor can help you assess and stabilize cash flow over the next several months. Continue to avoid making big financial commitments: long-term strategy will come later. Ask questions about your accounts and financial records.
  • Establish an emergency fund. A good goal is to maintain three to six months of living expenses in a liquid account.
  • Have your spouse’s name removed from utility accounts, including mobile phone and internet. Ask your phone carrier to remove your spouse’s phone number from a household account and adjust the monthly bill accordingly.
  • Notify creditors, and close credit card accounts that are in your spouse’s name only. It’s advisable to provide a copy of the death certificate to the three major credit-reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. This will help make it more difficult for identity thieves to exploit your spouse’s personal information.
  • Ask the local tax authority whether your state offers a widow’s property tax exemption.
  • Update your will to include a living heir.
  • Close your spouse’s email accounts and social media accounts or turn the latter into memorial pages. Meta has a feature that allows users to appoint someone to administer their account after death. The designee can control the page content or shut it down. Meta, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Snapchat, and X have a form that must be submitted to delete or memorialize a deceased user’s account. Other sites, such as Pinterest, ask that you send the request in an email.

 

6–9 months after the death of a spouse

  • Follow up with your attorney about the will probate. You should be updated regularly as the process unfolds, and you may want to consult your financial advisor and accountant to ensure that proceeds are handled in the most advantageous way. Ask your attorney to advise on any changes or additions to your own will.
  • Assess your goals and priorities. Are there professional benchmarks you still want to achieve? Are there causes you wish to support or areas for personal growth that you want to explore? Begin developing some lists and think of them collectively as your personal and financial vision statement.

 

9–12 months after the death of a spouse

  • Begin aligning your financial future with your most important goals and priorities, with help from your financial advisor. A financial plan should reflect the future you envision for yourself and those closest to you. Discuss areas of financial literacy where you need improvement and form a plan for acquiring the knowledge necessary to feel more in control.
  • Follow up with your attorney and accountant or other tax advisor about the estate settlement.
  • Review your vision statement. How does your financial plan support its various elements?

You’ve now laid the groundwork for a future that incorporates what matters most to you, personally and financially. The most essential elements of any journey are a reliable map and dependable travel companions. Working with clients in a way that respects both their emotional and financial needs, a fiduciary financial professional can offer a roadmap for the future and knowledgeable companionship along the way. For information on how our advisors can help you during this time of transition, please contact us.

Mercer Advisors Inc. is a parent company of Mercer Global Advisors Inc. and is not involved with investment services. Mercer Global Advisors Inc. (“Mercer Advisors”) is registered as an investment advisor with the SEC. The firm only transacts business in states where it is properly registered or is excluded or exempted from registration requirements.

All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author as of the date of publication and are subject to change. Some of the research and ratings shown in this presentation come from third parties that are not affiliated with Mercer Advisors. The information is believed to be accurate but is not guaranteed or warranted by Mercer Advisors. Content, research, tools and stock or option symbols are for educational and illustrative purposes only and do not imply a recommendation or solicitation to buy or sell a particular security or to engage in any particular investment strategy. For financial planning advice specific to your circumstances, talk to a qualified professional at Mercer Advisors.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. (CFP Board) owns the CFP® certification mark, the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certification mark, and the CFP® certification mark (with plaque design) logo in the United States, which it authorizes use of by individuals who successfully complete CFP Board’s initial and ongoing certification requirements.