There’s truly nothing that prepares you for a loved one’s passing, let alone your spouse. The first and primary step is to take the time you need to grieve your loss, celebrate their life, and then and only then, take care of the decisions that follow. “Clients [should] not make any major financial decisions for a year, like selling your house or making a lump sum investment. You are emotional and looking for advice. It's easy to get pressured into making a decision that might not be right for you.” [i]
In short, you’ll be “settling the estate, notifying appropriate parties, signing up for any benefits, and shutting down potential identity theft.” [ii]
This checklist can help you take one step at a time and prioritize the decisions that need your attention.
1. Locate and read your spouse’s will and estate planning documents. You may want to contact your estate planning attorney to provide you with legal guidance as you navigate this season. If you don’t have a will and/or trust in place, we strongly encourage you to reach out to an estate planning attorney to get those documents in order. The last place your loved ones want to be when you pass is in probate court. If you do have a will and/or trust in place, we recommend giving your family the name of the attorney you filed your paperwork with and also storing your copy in a safe, but accessible place.
2. Request 10-12 copies of the death certificate. You will need this document to prove the passing of your spouse, claim benefits, and switch over accounts into your name. “It is easiest to obtain these copies through the funeral home or mortuary. For deaths that occurred within the past few months, you can also get a death certificate from your state’s Department of Health or Office of Vital Statistics.” [iii] You may also need certified copies of your marriage certificate to accompany the death certificate.
Change property titles: auto(s)and home(s).
Change titles on all joint bank, investment, and credit card accounts. Ask your financial institutions for the appropriate forms.
3. Apply for government benefits.
Department of Veterans Affairs: If your spouse served in the military, you may be eligible for additional benefits. Contact your local VA branch.
4. Contact your spouse’s current & former employer(s). If your spouse was employed at the time of their death, reach out to their employer to understand what benefits you are entitled to as a beneficiary. These benefits may include your spouse's retirement savings, life insurance payout, etc. If your family is currently receiving medical insurance through the employer, ask about how long the coverage will last before you need to make other arrangements. You may also want to contact previous employers in case there are retirement accounts that your spouse left with that company.
5. If you have children in college, contact the financial aid office. Your child may qualify for additional financial aid depending on the school and your current financial situation.
6. Update your own emergency contact person & beneficiaries. You’ll want to make sure your emergency contact person and designated beneficiaries on your financial accounts are updated.
7. Get tax advice. If your situation is complex, it may be helpful to have a good CPA review your specific case and give you next step recommendations. “Your accountant can address the various tax implications. Taxes for a deceased spouse should be filed and paid in the year of death. This includes filing Estate Tax Form 706 and any other forms that may need to be filed with federal, state, and local tax authorities.” [vi]
8. Take steps to avoid becoming a target of fraud or predatory services. It’s unfortunate, but there are companies that prey on the recently widowed. They will use fear tactics to get to you sign up for services you don’t need. Consult with your financial advisor before signing up for anything additional to what you already have in place. They can help you understand how this new service would or would not benefit your overall plan because they understand your whole picture.
9. Discuss next steps with your Financial Advisor. A financial professional will help you update your financial plan based on benefits received and your new circumstances. They will help you navigate the short-term changes as well as guide and empower you with the information you need to make choices about your future. They can also coordinate with your CPA and Attorney on various estate and planning matters.
Death is a topic that many of us want to avoid. However, loving your family well also means making sure they’ll be taken care of in the unlikely and unfortunate event of your passing. Let us help you make sure your finances and estate are aligned and in order with our Living Legacy Planning.