By Donna M. Wood, CPA/PFS, CFP ®
Surviving the loss of a spouse is never easy. Many times, widows and widowers feel lost as they try to navigate their new normal. Although having a checklist or a guide may not cover all of your unique needs, I hope that these tips will help you to start making progress on getting organized, respecting your spouse’s wishes, and setting yourself up for a stable future.
#1: Address Your Spouse’s Wishes
Your first step should be to address whatever wishes your spouse has imparted to you or to your estate planning attorney. Be sure to contact your attorney right away in order to understand what they need from you to execute your spouse’s wishes.
#2: Obtain Death Certificates
Usually, the funeral home will contact the Social Security office to report the death and arrange for your spouse’s death certificate to be created. However, if you should lose it or if it gets lost in the shuffle, you can order certified copies of a death certificate from your state health department.
#3: Gain Access to and Consolidate Accounts
Keeping a record of all open accounts and having the passwords on hand to access them can help make this process easier. However, whether you have a record or not, it’s important to comb through all financial documents to ensure that you are appropriately reassigning ownership or consolidating your spouse’s financial accounts with your own. Accounts you should look for include:
- Checking and saving accounts
- Investment or retirement accounts
- Credit Cards
- Mortgage(s) and loans
- Life insurance policies (or other insurance policies that are only in your spouse’s name)
Before moving and closing accounts verify any monthly or periodic deposits and payments that may flow through the accounts. These may have to be moved or cancelled prior to closing accounts.
#4: Review Your “Life Admin” Checklist
Building a life with someone often comes with many shared “administrative” responsibilities. These could include financial responsibilities such as bills to pay, or they could include more general responsibilities like who maintains the Costco membership. It’s wise to start by looking at your bank statements – what have you paid for over the last several years that’s a recurring expense?
This list will be a good indicator of what type of administrative responsibilities will shift to the surviving spouse – whether they used to handle them or not. A few “life admin” items to be on the lookout for include:
- Memberships to clubs or shopping centers
- Gym memberships
- Subscriptions (magazines, Netflix, Amazon, cable)
- Cell phones
- Prescriptions (especially if your spouse had a recurring prescription that refills or is sent to the home automatically)
#5: Confirm That Social Security Has Been Contacted
As mentioned previously, funeral homes typically report deaths directly to the Social Security Administration. However, it doesn’t hurt to confirm. Note that you must call your local Social Security office to report your spouse’s death and apply for survivor benefits – you cannot do so online and at present you cannot do so in person.
#6: Contact All 3 Credit Bureaus
You will want to report your spouse’s death to all three credit bureaus – Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. This helps to ensure that your spouse’s credit will be frozen, and prevent scammers from applying for credit in your spouse’s name.
#7: Memorialize Social Media and Handle Your Loved Ones’ Digital Estate
In today’s digital world, you might want to ensure your spouse’s digital presence is memorialized or shut down after they pass away. It’s common to shut down email accounts, however, there are options to “memorialize” accounts on Facebook. This allows for the account to stay up, and prevents scammers from using it account or hacking it in any way. It also helps you to preserve any digital memories saved.
#8: Surround Yourself with Community
Although this can be easier said than done when you’re in the middle of grief, it’s important to surround yourself with a supportive community while you walk this journey. Family, friends, loved ones, and trusted advisors (financial or otherwise) can all help to guide you through this challenging time.
About the Author: Wood Smith Advisors, located in Haymarket, is a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) and fee-only financial services firm that partners with its clients to simplify their financial lives. Wood Smith focuses on women, entrepreneurs, and individuals with complex financial situations, providing objective and competent advice, education and services to help them develop and build their businesses and reach their financial goals. Woodsmithadvisors.com