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Simple, Clear Steps To Managing The Financial Chaos After The Loss Of A Spouse

| July 27, 2021

By Kristi De Rycke, Registered Assistant

The death of a loved one is clearly a very difficult emotional time.  Unfortunately, when you are widowed, it is also a very overwhelming time with trying to settle financial affairs.  It would be nice if these things could wait until you were thinking more clearly, but they cannot.  The purpose of this is to lay out the things that need done in a checklist form to help you get through it as simply as possible.  Learn what steps need to be done and how to get help from others.

Start with being patient with yourself.  There is no right way to handle this.   Clearly you will be having many emotions during this process, but did you know that your cognition can also be affected.  You may be finding that you have difficulty concentrating, forgetting things or overall memory loss, difficulty processing facts and even confusion.  These things are also normal during grief.  You may even be having physical symptoms including changes in sleep and appetite, fatigue, muscle tension and headaches.  Check out this site for more information and additional resources related to handling the many aspects of grief.

Do what you can do when you can do it.  Reading this article is a great step to getting started.    A trusted financial advisor can help sort out financial accounts and life insurance claims.  They can help with a short-term plan for sorting out your financial situation now until you are in a better position to make a longer-term decision later.  They also can give you an objective viewpoint during a very emotional time.  Reach out to a trusted lawyer to assist with understanding and probating the will and possibly helping overall with settling the estate.  Your family and friends want to be there for you but often do not know what to do to help you.  They can come and make calls with you and sort out what is needed for each situation.  Ask them to take your children or household tasks to free you up to complete the necessary things.   Ask them to visit when you need to talk to clear your head.  I am sure that you have been on the end of this where you wanted to help someone out but felt lost in the how.  Give them the how.   Start by going through this list and adding any additional tasks that you can think of that need to be completed.

  • Get organized.  Get a planner or use a notebook to write down things that you need to do.  This will empty them out of your head and get them down on paper so you can take care of it as you have the time and energy.  In addition, make folders for separate tasks and documents.  Since your mind will not be working as efficiently as in normal times, sort things out and label as clearly as possible.  Examples for specific folders may be life insurance, bills, important documents, etc.
  • Log all communication.  Consider printing important emails and putting them in the files.  Write down the date, name of contact, discussion and numbers for all phone calls related to settling the financial affairs.  It can be helpful to get a direct line for the person you talked to so that you are always working with the same contact person versus several.
  • Gather records—Go through the lock box or file cabinet.  Gather together social security cards, birth certificate, name changes, marriage certificate, wills, trusts, life insurance policies, and financial statements.
  • Obtain several copies of the death certificate.  You should be able to get these through the funeral home or courthouse.  You will be required to send many different places copies of this death certificate.  Some organizations will require certified copies and others will take copies of the certified copy.  Make sure you have plenty of both.  Since getting the certified copy can take longer, consider starting with 5-10 certified copies to make sure you have enough on hand for the urgent tasks.  When you are asked to provide a death certificate to an organization, always ask if you can just send just a photocopied copy or if they need a certified copy.  You have to pay for each certified copy, so you do not want to give those over if you do not need to do so.
  • Contact life insurance agents (should be listed on your policy) to start a claim.  This should be done fairly quickly if you have funeral costs that you will need the life insurance money to help cover.  You will need a certified copy of the death certificate for each company.
  • Request that the lawyer go over the will once you have located it.  The original copy is typically filed at the lawyer’s office who wrote it or in a safe deposit box.  He or she can help you with the process of probating the will if you desire including filing the will at the county probate office.  This includes contacting the county office or district probate office where your loved one lived. You will need to file the will and a certified copy of the death certificate. The court will have to approve the executor of the estate.  There would need to be a notice placed in the newspaper so if the deceased owed a debt to anyone, they could claim in within a certain amount of time. The lawyer can also help you settle the estate including figuring out who is owed what, closing accounts, and paying any taxes.
  • Contact your tax preparer to determine if there is anything that you need to do prior to the normal annual filing. 
  • Contact the DMV:  They will need to cancel your spouse’s driver’s license.  This will remove the deceased name from the Department of Vehicle records and assist with preventing fraud or identity theft.
  • Contact your loved one’s employer.  You will need to ask about any life insurance policies, retirement accounts, pensions, and health insurance policies.  If your spouse covered you on their health insurance, you will need to ask if you can remain on the health insurance policy and for how long.  Ask if they offer any COBRA (The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act).  This will give worker’s families who lose their health benefits the right to choose to continue group health benefits provided by their group health plan for limited periods of time under certain circumstances such as death. Click here for more information. 
  • Gather bills.  Make a list of regular bills.  Determine if they are paid by check or automatic withdrawal from the bank.  You will need usernames and passwords.  You can call the place of business directly if you do not have access to the online accounts.  Look for bills that occur once yearly like home and auto insurance, property taxes and auto licenses.  Add bills related to any medical expenses when your spouse was dying and funeral expenses. 
  • Contact the social security office.  Confirm that this has been done by the funeral home or call 1-800-772-1213.  The first step is to notify them of the death.  You may also want to file a claim for a survivor benefit, and you can ask about this at the time.  You will not receive both yours and survivor benefits but can be eligible for the higher amount if you are 60 or older.  You would also be eligible if you are raising the deceased person’s child who is under 16 years of age or either you or the child is disabled.  For more information on this topic click here
  • Retitle jointly held assets such as bank accounts, automobiles, investment, and any real estate property owned.  You will want to make certain you have an account open with your spouse’s name on it until all of the life insurance and other things settle.  They may need to deposit the money in an account with his or her name on it.
  • Remove your deceased spouse’s name off of home and auto policies and credit cards.
  • Delete your loved one’s social media pages.  You can either delete a Facebook page or memorialize it. This allows friends and family to continue to post on it in memory of the lost loved one.  You will need to contact the social media company to do either.
  • Cancel their cell phone service.
  • Cancel their subscriptions, associations, and memberships.
  • Close any PayPal, Amazon, eBay, or other online accounts to avoid future security issues.

Be easy on yourself.  What you are going through is real, real tough and there is no real defined way to go through it.  Take it one step at a time and do the tasks that you can handle on a given day.  Most importantly, get help!  Now go back through this list, write a name next to any that you can get help on.  This could be family member or friend or a professional.  If you do not have a lawyer, tax preparer or trusted investment advisor, start by finding them.  Then pick up the phone and call the family and friends to ask specifically if they can help in the above stated areas. 

By Greg Johnson

Loss of a loved one is never easy, managing their affairs can be even worse. Kristi is spot on in her checklist of items to be done when you lose a loved one. I always tell people to come to our office and have someone who knows what they are doing help you. These are things we deal with on a daily basis and most folks are not comfortable with figuring these things out. Utilize this checklist to help guide you, but don’t ever be afraid of reaching out to a trusted advisor to help walk you through the details.