Losing a spouse is one of the most traumatic life events most of us will ever face. Dealing with the death of a loved one is never easy, and grief can bring on a myriad of emotions that you might not be prepared for. Before you have time to fully process those emotions, you’ll face a laundry list of decisions to make for your future.
Many of the decisions you need to make are financial and require clear thinking in a time filled with stress, which is never an easy task. Some decisions can wait until you’ve had time to process your loss. But others are time-sensitive. Seeing as this will likely be a tough time for you, remember that your advisors (accountant, financial planner, attorney, etc.) are there to help you think clearly and weigh your options for some tough financial decisions.
Gather important documents
Right away, you’ll need to locate some essential documents and have them on hand for the next few months as you sort out your finances. If you haven’t been in the habit of storing your important documents in a safe and accessible location, start now. Create a central place or folder to keep all these documents handy as you move through the next few months.
Documents to pull together include:
- Will/ trust
- Life insurance policies
- Marriage certificate and birth certificate of your spouse
- Death certificate (make 10-20 copies)
- Tax returns for the last two years
- Car insurance and car loan information for your deceased spouse if you were on the loan
- Health insurance if you were on your deceased spouse’s plan
- Current bills
- Financial documents
- Investment account statements
- Bank statements
- Stock certificates
- Mortgage documents (just the statement will suffice)
- Retirement plan statements
- Lease information for your apartment
- Homeowner’s insurance
Make phone calls and pay bills
Once you have all your financial documents together, you can begin to tackle the financial checklist and make some decisions.
- Talk to your estate planning attorney – your estate planning attorney is the go-to person who will help you navigate your will or trust documents to make any necessary legal decisions upon your spouse’s passing. If you used an app or created your own will, ask friends and family members for a referral to an estate planning attorney so they can review your documents.
- Contact your spouse’s Human Resource department – notify HR about your spouse’s passing and find out about any benefits or liabilities that might affect you. Is there an employer-provided life insurance policy from which you can expect a payout? Was your spouse owed a bonus, commissions or unused vacation pay? Did your spouse have a 401k balance? If your spouse had a 401k loan or an FSA account that permitted spending in advance of payroll deductions, what is the process for satisfying those financial obligations? If you were on your spouse’s health insurance policy, how will benefits proceed?
- Life insurance – if your spouse had a life insurance policy outside of work, contact the insurance company and set the process in motion for receiving death benefits. They will need a copy of the death certificate to begin the process. In most cases, life insurance proceeds are tax-free, but you’ll want to confirm those details with the insurance company. Also, think about what you would like to do with the proceeds – pay bills, set aside money for your children’s education, invest, and so on.
- Focus on your bills – compile a list of all your upcoming bills and make sure you have enough money in your account to cover them. Think about putting your bills on auto-pay so you won’t forget to pay them during this time of stress. If your spouse had any credit cards, loans or other bills solely in his or her name, provide those creditors with a death certificate. You may or may not be responsible for paying these debts, depending on the type of each debt and where you live.
Tidy up your finances
Now that you’ve taken care of the most time-sensitive financial to-do’s, it’s time to focus on next steps. These tasks generally come up within three to four months of your spouse’s passing. Work at your own pace but don’t put them off indefinitely.
- Update beneficiaries – it’s time to look at all your financial documents including life insurance, bank accounts, investment accounts and your will to update the beneficiary designations. If you’ve named a trust as the primary beneficiary, have a chat with your estate planning attorney to make sure that your trust is still intact and that it can serve as your primary beneficiary.
- Close joint accounts – make a list of any joint accounts that you shared with your spouse. It’s time to close them and replace them with accounts in your name only. You can also close out any accounts that were solely in your spouse’s name. You’ll need to provide each institution with a copy of the death certificate.
- Schedule a meeting with your accountant – losing a partner can mean changes to your future tax bill. Meet with an accountant to stay on top of taxes you may owe in the current tax year and to discuss any withholding changes for the future. Tip – you are still considered married by the IRS in the year your spouse passed away. If you don’t have an accountant that you currently work with, ask friends or family for a referral to someone they trust.
- Create a new budget – the adjustment to a new financial way of life will probably come with plenty of challenges. Now is the time to set up a new budget to reflect your current income and expenses. You can use an Excel template or a mobile app like You Need a Budget. Living frugally and tracking your expenses might help you avoid adding additional financial stress during this time of loss.
Think about your plans for your financial future
Once you’ve had time to adjust to this new way of life, think about a few financial decisions that can affect your future. Chances are your lifestyle has changed over the last few months, so now it’s time to take a look at your financial plan and adjust that as well.
- Meet with a financial planner – if you have a financial plan in place, now is a good time to regroup and make alterations to your financial plan to reflect your new financial situation. If you don’t have a financial plan in place, now is an excellent time to create one to help you prepare to meet your financial goals.
- Check in on retirement contributions – use an online retirement calculator to see where you stand on retirement savings. You might need to increase your contributions or make changes to your current level of retirement savings.
- Update your will (and other estate documents) – if you haven’t done so already, it’s time to create or update your will. There are apps to help you create a will easily, like Trust & Will. Beyond your will, you’ll also want to create an Advanced Health Care Directive that can be your voice should you become unable to make medical decisions.
- Visualize the future – while it may seem hard to visualize what your future looks like without your spouse, this is an important piece of the healing process. Whether you choose to talk to a therapist or friend, or prefer some alone time, now is a good time to create a new vision for your future. Create a vision board or simply write out some new goals for the future.
Don’t forget to breathe
Getting through the loss of a spouse is hard, but you can get through it (and hopefully financially intact). Even if you weren’t the spouse who paid the bills or handled savings, there’s no reason you can’t become that person now. The best thing you can do now is stay organized. Put one foot in front of the other.
As much as possible, take your time when making financial decisions after you lose a loved one. Before you make any decision, reflect on it and talk with your advisors, whether professionals or trusted people in your inner circle. Seek out other resources, too, so that you can gather as much knowledge as you can and move into the next phase of your life with a solid financial action plan. Most of all, take each day as it comes while you adjust to a new way of life.
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Shannah Compton Game is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER® professional with an MBA and is the host of the award-winning podcast, Millennial Money, where she shares totally relatable and easy to understand financial advice that will actually make you want to talk about money.
Haven Life doesn’t provide tax, legal or investment advice. This discussion is intended as general education only. We encourage you to work with your own personal tax or legal professionals and your financial advisor. Opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Haven Life.