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Organizing Your Finances After Your Spouse Has Died

Losing a spouse or partner is a stressful event. Yet, during this time, you must complete a variety of tasks and make important financial decisions. You may need to make final arrangements, notify various businesses and government agencies, settle your spouse's estate, and provide for your own financial security. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make dealing with these matters less difficult.

Notify others and get advice

Dealing with both the death of your spouse and money matters at the same time can be overwhelming, especially if the death was unexpected. But there are resources available to help. First, call on close family members, friends, and clergy--you'll need their emotional support. Notify your employer and your spouse's employer. Then contact the professionals who will help you cope with the paperwork and financial matters. These may include your funeral director, attorney, insurance professional, financial advisor, and accountant. Keep their phone numbers handy.

Get organized and keep your finances current

You will need a number of documents to finalize your spouse's financial affairs. First, obtain certified copies of the death certificate. Your family doctor or the medical examiner should provide you with the death certificate within 24 hours of the death. The funeral home should complete the form and file it with the state. Get several certified copies (photocopies may not be accepted). Then, gather any estate planning documents, such as a will and trusts, and other relevant documents, such as deeds and titles. Also locate any marriage certificate, birth or adoption certificates of children, and military discharge papers, which you may need to apply for benefits. If you don't know where these documents are, they may be found in a safe-deposit box, or your attorney may have copies. You may want to set up folders so you can keep track of everything. And, although it may be difficult under the circumstances, pay your bills and keep your finances current, especially mortgage and insurance payments.

Settle your spouse's estate

Settling your spouse's estate is the duty of the executor, who is named in the will. Spouses generally name each other as executor of the other's estate. If this is so, your attorney can help you to wind up your spouse's financial affairs. If that is not the case, contact the executor and assist him or her when you can.

Here is a rundown of some of the most important tasks that must be completed.

  • Report the death to Social Security by calling 1-800-772-1213. If your spouse was receiving benefits via direct deposit, request that the bank return funds received for the month of death and thereafter to Social Security. Do not cash any Social Security checks received by mail. Return all checks to Social Security as soon as possible. Surviving spouses and other family members may be eligible for a $255 lump-sum death benefit and survivor's benefits. Go to www.ssa.gov for more information.
  • Contact all insurance companies to file claims. The policies could include individual and group life, mortgage insurance, auto credit life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment insurance, credit card insurance, and annuities.
  • Arrange to retrieve your spouse's belongings from his or her workplace. Collect any salary, vacation, or sick pay owed to your spouse, and be sure to ask about continuing health insurance coverage and potential survivor's benefits for a spouse or children.
  • Contact past employers regarding pension plans, and contact any IRA custodians or trustees. Review designated beneficiaries and post-death distribution options.
  • Contact all credit card companies and let them know of the death. Cancel all cards unless you're named on the account and wish to retain the card.
  • File the will with the appropriate probate court. If real estate was owned out of state, file ancillary probate in that state also. If there is no will, contact the probate court for instructions, or contact a probate attorney for assistance.
  • Retitle jointly held assets, such as bank accounts, automobiles, stocks and bonds, and real estate.
  • A federal estate tax return may need to be filed within nine months of death. State laws vary, but state estate tax and/or inheritance tax returns may also need to be filed, and may have a different filing date. Federal and state income taxes are due for the year of death on the normal filing date, unless an extension is requested. If there are trusts, separate income tax returns may need to be filed.
  • Reevaluate your budget, short-term and long-term finances, insurance needs, and investment options. Update insurance policies, and your own estate and investment plans as needed.