What To Do When A Spouse Suddenly Passes?
In the first weeks following a spouse’s death, you will be faced with dozens of decisions – some minor and some with long-lasting impacts. It will be essential to remain organized and to move carefully through each decision to make sure that nothing gets left unaddressed. Keep a list and ask for help where you need it. Go slow as you move through this process. Set aside a period of time each day to deal with financial matters. Getting just one or two tasks accomplished a day can keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
Addressing Immediate Financial Needs
First things first, you will need to make sure that your cash flow is taken care of so that you can pay for the essentials. Notify your spouse’s employer, life insurance provider, and health insurance company right away to ensure funds are available to pay for medical bills, funeral expenses, and any other costs that arise in the first weeks.
Obtaining the Death Certificate
Within a few days of your spouse’s passing, you will be able to request a copy of the death certificate from your local or state vital records office. Many banks, insurance companies, and credit card companies will request a copy of the death certificate. Because they may request originals rather than photocopies or scanned versions, it is recommended to request 10 to 20 copies of the death certificate. You may need to pay per copy, so take this fee into account.
Organizing and Paying Bills
Within the first weeks after a spouse’s death, it will be essential to get clear on how much money is coming in, how much you will need to pay toward bills, and how much that leaves for spending. There are a lot of expenses associated with the passing of a loved one, and it will be necessary for you to know how much you have available to spend.
First, make a list of all of the debts and bills that need to be paid over the next thirty days. This includes household bills, mortgage payments, and any other monthly expenses. Make sure that you look carefully at any bills that arrive in the mail. Don’t just put things in a folder to deal with later on. Have a calendar ready so that you can add due dates and amounts owed as bills come in.
Locating Financial Documents and Notifying Institutions
While going through paperwork to identify bills and outstanding debts, this is also an excellent time to organize other documents and notify financial institutions about your spouse’s passing.
As you go through documents, mailings, and financial paperwork make a list that includes:
• Your spouse’s bank accounts and brokerage accounts
• Any retirement plans and insurance policies in his or her name
• Loans, credit cards, and mortgages (include due dates and amounts due)
Once you have this list, carefully go through each financial institution and follow its policy to notify of an account holder’s death. To ensure that an account is not frozen, make sure that you have proper documentation that shows that you are the legal spouse of the deceased and that you have the right to take ownership of the accounts. If you have copies of your spouse’s beneficiary designation or pay on death forms, these may help you speed the process of gaining access to these funds and accounts.
To avoid identity theft, it is important that you contact credit bureaus and let them know of your spouse’s death.
Keep Everything in One Place
Create an accordion folder or binder for financial documents with clearly marked sections. You will need to refer to these documents again and again. In this stressful and painful period, you do not want to waste time searching for documents. You may want to include sections such as:
• Estate Planning Documents (wills, trust instructions)
• Life Insurance Policies
• Birth Certificates for any Minor Children
• Marriage Certificate
• Death Certificates
• Funeral Arrangements
• Bank and Other Account Statements
• Tax Returns
• Pension/Retirement Plan Statements
• Stock Certificates
• Homeowners Insurance Documents
• Health Insurance Information
• Motor Vehicle Titles and Car Insurance
• Loan Statements
• Mortgages, Leases, Deeds
• Bills and Bill Calendar
• Safe Deposit Box Information and Key
• Military Service Records
Updating Account Holder Names
Any documentation that you wish to keep active but is held in your spouse’s name should be updated as soon as possible. It is essential to have your name on any accounts, services, or contracts before a situation arises when you may need to contact one of these providers or companies to address an urgent problem. Often, a service provider or company will not allow anyone other than the account holder to make changes to the account. If you have updated your name and information before you need to make changes to accounts, you can save yourself the hassle of trying to become a named account holder while you are having a problem with your car, home heat, or any other necessary service.
If any vehicles are titled in your spouse’s name, make sure to change the title, registration, and insurance on those vehicles. If any household utilities are held in your spouse’s name, you will need to contact those utility companies and notify them that you wish to have your name placed in the utility accounts.
Support and Resources
The most important thing to remember during this time is that you don’t have to do this alone. Reach out to friends, family, a bereavement counselor, your attorney, and a financial planner to help take things off your plate. Asking for help is never a bad thing.
For immediate financial support, if you are over the age of 60, you may be entitled to survivor’s benefits through the Social Security Administration. If you are younger than 60 but have children under the age of 16 living in your home, you also may be eligible for benefits. The Social Security Administration also provides a $255 funeral expense benefit. If your spouse was a U.S. veteran, you might also be entitled to support. Contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to see if you are eligible for up to $2,000 in burial expense support.
If your spouse had a will, you would need to begin the process of probating the estate. If there is no will, the probate court will determine how the estate is managed using default state laws. This is where an attorney comes in. Choose an attorney you trust to help guide you through the legal process of probating the estate, notifying financial institutions, and applying for all benefits to which you are entitled. An experienced professional has been through this before, so they will be able to help get your organized, make sure nothing gets forgotten, and ensure that your decisions create the best result for you.
Stan Faulkner has over 15 years of experience and has focused his practice on serving families in the Atlanta area. If you are ready to create or update your estate or if you have any questions, call Perigon Legal Services at (770) 685-9501.