Partners for life. That’s the image most of us have when we marry. Someone who ideally will help ease life’s worries and who makes us laugh. Someone we imagine growing old with.
When a spouse dies, whether suddenly or after a long illness, the loss is often felt in waves of grief. As you’re dealing with emotions, such as shock, sadness, regret or even relief, you’re also expected to take charge of next steps. Who will alert friends and family of the death, handle funeral arrangements and pay bills? What did your spouse want? What do you want?
The questions keep coming as you figure out issues as old as wills and as new as identity theft. It can help to have a timeframe around what you will need to handle in the first three months.
Within 30 days
In this early time after a beloved partner’s death, you need to:
- Obtain death certificates: The funeral director can help you get certified copies of your spouse’s death certificate. You'll need about 5 or so copies as you finalize his or her affairs. There is a nominal charge for these. You can also obtain them from your county clerk's office.
- Gather your spouse’s (and your) important documents: You will need them to make notifications to government and financial entities, and to receive benefits.
- If your spouse was working, notify their employer: Find out if your spouse was owed salary or payments for accrued vacation or sick time. Ask if there is any final paperwork you need to complete. If your family’s health insurance was through your spouse’s employer, ask if you’re able to continue it and the cost.
- If your spouse was retired, notify the Social Security Administration (SSA): The funeral director will report the death to SSA, but you’ll want to contact them to figure out if you or your children are eligible to receive survivor benefits. Reporting the death to SSA can help limit the risk of someone attempting identity theft by stealing your loved one's Social Security number.
- If your spouse was a veteran, notify the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): Contact the VA if your partner was receiving disability payments or they were enrolled in a life insurance program.
- Call your life insurance company: Life insurance policies can take weeks to pay out, so if your spouse held one with you as the beneficiary, you’ll want to call your insurance company as soon as possible to get the payment process started. It’s also a good idea to check with employers regarding any life insurance or death benefits, like a pension. If you aren’t on the account, you’ll need to provide them with a death certificate and proof of executorship.
- Contact your banks: If needed, you’ll want to change account holder information to ensure you’re listed and can access funds. Close out individual accounts or transfer them to you or the designated beneficiaries. Also, close credit cards your spouse held individually.
- Hire help: Consider whether you need to hire a financial advisor to help make decisions about any assets you’ll receive. Ask yourself, too, if you need a lawyer to help with questions about your spouse’s will or estate plans.
Within 60 days
A couple of months in, your feelings may still be raw, but there is more to do:
- Assess bill paying: If you split this responsibility, or if your partner did it all, be sure to carefully examine your obligations. Make sure you’re not delinquent on any accounts.
- Notify the major credit reporting firms: Contact any one of the three bureaus Experian, Equifax or TransUnion for two purposes. First, request a copy of your spouse’s credit report to make sure there are no debts you didn’t know about. Second, ask that a deceased notice be placed on their credit report to help prevent identity theft.
- Assess other insurance policies: Think about other insurance policies your spouse held – for instance, car insurance, homeowner’s policy or accidental death policy. Notify the policies and either cancel or change them to reflect that you are now the insured party.
- Update deeds and titles: Speaking of homes and cars – are you listed on deeds and titles along with your spouse? Joint property owned by spouses typically transfers automatically to the survivor. But you may want to update these forms by providing a death certificate.
- Name a new beneficiary: Most spouses list one another as the primary beneficiary on wills, trusts, insurance policies, etc. If your spouse is your beneficiary, update these to reflect your new beneficiary. If you have children, you can give a portion to each.
Within 90 days
Many people start to feel the beginning of a new normal in this phase, though individual experiences vary. Take some time to reflect on the details you may have forgotten and to plan ahead for your future:
- Plan for tax season: Remember you will still need to file taxes including for your spouse for the year in which they died.
- Cancel dues or memberships: Think of organizations, clubs or affinity groups your spouse belonged to, such as a fraternal or Rotary organization. Cancel the dues/memberships. Consider canceling or changing gym memberships that no longer make sense (such as a couples membership).
- Get the support you need: Think about yourself and what you will need going forward. Do you need to re-evaluate a spending and savings plan or otherwise come to terms with your new financial picture? Ask yourself if you need professional advisors in the coming year from a financial planner, lawyer or tax consultant.
Read more about how to manage finances after the death of a spouse.