The passing away of a loved one puts a lot of wheels in motion. Even though it may be hard to think clearly at such a time, one has to remain in control. Among your responsibilities, you may need to oversee a funeral, take over the decedent’s estate, sort through piles of documents, and file a lot of claims.
You may end up feeling like everything is an emergency. But in reality, your list of to-dos can be categorized into three time frames: what needs to be done immediately, what can wait a month or two, and what can be completed in the longer term. In this article, we will address the first category: the things you must do immediately upon the death of your spouse:
Make Funeral Arrangements
The first step is to inform family members and close friends. Then get in touch with a funeral home and start arrangements for the service. The funeral home will help you file for a death certificate from the vital records office, and if you give them instructions, they can plan the funeral with minimal supervision. Remember to get several copies of the death certificate—it will be critical in the coming weeks.
Get a Team Together
You will have lots of documents to prepare, financial institutions to contact, claims to file, and so on. Given all the moving parts, it may be smart to enlist the services of professionals to help you maintain order, such as your personal lawyer, an estate lawyer, accountant, and financial advisor.
Important documents to prepare or resolve include a death certificate, the will and other estate planning documents, financial statements, life insurance policies, mortgage information, stocks and bonds, and tax returns.
Probate the Will
A probate court will validate your loved one’s will as a public document—the first step to administering the estate. Once probate has been granted, claims can be settled, debts paid, and remaining assets distributed according to the terms of the will. If you have been named the executor of your spouse’s will, you can take charge of their financial and legal affairs.
Property and bank accounts that were jointly owned are not probate assets, and they pass on to the living spouse automatically. The same goes for retirement accounts and life insurance policies that have named beneficiaries.
If your spouse set up a trust—for example, a living trust—then you will avoid the probate process (unless there was a probatable document such as a pour-over will). Assuming you have been named the successor trustee, then you can begin executing the trust’s provisions by contacting the financial firm that is holding the document. You will then apply for a federal tax ID number for the trust, notify the beneficiaries, and carry out the trust’s instructions for distribution.
Notify Current and Past Employers
If your spouse was working at the time they passed away, you may be the beneficiary of employer-sponsored insurance policies, retirement accounts, or accident benefits. If they were retired, there may be company pension plans that haven’t been paid out or retiree life insurance policies.
Contact present or past employers to determine the claims to file and the documentation you need to collect accrued benefits.
If the decedent served in the military, their survivors may be entitled to veteran benefits. Contact the Department of Veterans Affairs to see if you qualify.
As the beneficiary of your spouse’s life insurance policies and personal retirement accounts, you can have your attorney file a claim with the insurance provider, the IRA administrator, or other financial institutions.
You’ll need to submit an original copy of the death certificate along with some other documents to validate any claims. If the required documentation is provided, claims are usually settled within 30 days.
Notify Financial Institutions
Notify all financial institutions where your spouse had an account, be it savings, checking, safe deposit boxes, or investment accounts.
As mentioned above, control of joint accounts is transferred to you. Individual accounts, however, will be frozen until you present a death certificate and documentary evidence that names you as the executor/beneficiary of the accounts. You may have to set up accounts in your name and in the name of the other beneficiaries to claim the assets.
As executor of your spouse’s estate, their credit cards become your responsibility. Reach out to the credit card companies, pay off outstanding bills on the cards, and close the accounts. If you had any joint credit cards with your spouse, remove their names from the account to prevent identity thieves from gaining access to your cards.
The death of a loved one is not an easy experience, but the longer you wait before putting your affairs in order, the more complicated those affairs can become. Use this list to help you take one step after the other and reduce the chances that an important step slips through the cracks.
In addition to your attorneys and accountants, you may want to work with a financial planner to help you get a handle on your finances and walk you through what needs to be done now and what can wait. Your financial advisor can help you answer the question “Am I going to be OK financially without my spouse?” And down the road, they can help you develop a financial plan around the new life you now have.