What to do when a spouse dies

July 14, 2021

After a spouse or partner dies, most people are overwhelmed — not only with grief but often with uncertainty about what to do when a spouse dies.

They may have dozens of questions about wills, insurance, social security, investments, and even day-to-day finances. Often, they don’t know what they need to do right away and what can wait.

I’ve found that an important thing I can give clients who have lost a spouse is grace. And even more important is for them to give themselves grace. If/when you survive a partner, understand that you don’t have to move into your next stage of life all at once, and you don’t have to do it all alone. Losing a spouse is an extremely hard transition — grace and “room” are key.

Use your support network

There are ways to prepare for the death of a spouse, to smooth the path. But even if you’ve done those, you’re likely to need support along this journey.

Some people find it helpful to involve a trusted child, sibling, or friend as a partner. They can keep track of paperwork, talk you through options, and keep you moving forward. Just make sure that they are willing to move at your pace and not push you into decisions you aren’t ready for.

Your financial advisor, accountant, and attorney can help you set goals and sort out which steps to take when. Have confidence that financial decisions are easy math. If your advisor knows your goals, is relatable, and is looking out for your best interests, this is likely a time to trust them to share the right alternatives with you. But, listen to your instincts.  If things feel like they are moving too fast or are not clear, consider pulling back. Of course, your advisors should understand the technical aspects of their profession, but, equally, they should be able to put your choices into language that works for you.

If they aren’t providing clarity and support – or worse, if their questions are adding stress – it is OK to find new professionals. In fact, 70% of widows change financial advisors after their husband dies. All your professional advisors should listen to your needs and make you feel confident that they can handle matters on your behalf.

While you will need to make some decisions, you don’t need to do all the follow-through work. Your chosen partner, CPA, advisor, or paralegal can make phone calls, fill out forms, and attend to the details needed to carry out your choices.

Additionally, joining a support group can be very valuable, as can therapy. While this might not seem connected to finances, healing from this trauma can help you be proactive instead of reactive and take things one step at a time. You don’t need to be strong. Losing one’s lifetime companion and loved one is an enormous loss and takes time to process — and support helps.

Give yourself time

Knowing what to do when a spouse dies isn’t just about collecting on insurance policies, rolling over accounts, and updating beneficiaries. There is a bigger picture.

Take time to figure out what your goals are in your new life. It takes a lot to build a solo life after years in a partnership. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What will my friendships and social life look like?
  • What will my community and support network be?
  • Do I want a pet?
  • How will I spend my time?
  • Where will I live?
  • What do I need to learn or add to my routine to-do list?
  • Do I need to change my budget and lifestyle?

This journey can take a few years. Let it unfold naturally. I always advise people not to make big decisions for about a year. Wait on things like moving or sharing insurance money with kids until you have goals and a vision for the rest of your foreseeable life. If you make changes too fast, you risk being reactive and getting stuck in a situation that doesn’t serve you well in the long term.

Follow a timeline of priorities

There are some immediate tasks you can and should sort out while figuring out your new life. Again, as it feels right to you, trust your professionals or partner in this journey to help with this. Ask their advice for what to do in these situations and let them do the legwork once you’ve made a choice.

  • Obtain a death certificate and share copies with those who need proof of death.
  • File for survivor’s Social Security benefits.
  • File as a beneficiary for a spouse’s retirement accounts/pensions.
  • Collect on life insurance If you can, tuck the payment away safely until you have set a roadmap for the future.
  • Collect veterans’ benefits if you qualify.
  • Make sure any long-term care benefits were used.
  • Talk to your attorney about estate planning opportunities that must be implemented relatively quickly – even within nine months of your spouse’s passing.
  • Talk to your CPA and financial advisor about any decisions that are time-sensitive. These could include required withdrawals from IRAs.

Once you’re ready for more in-depth guidance and action, you can re-engage with your trusted advisors on the next steps, such as:

  • Adjust insurance coverages.
  • Review your cash flow.
  • Revisit your investment structure.
  • Write or update your estate documents.
  • Review tax reduction strategies going forward.

For a comprehensive checklist of what to do when a spouse dies, check out the book “Moving Forward on Your Own” by financial planner Kathleen Rehl. This worksheet-style book also helps survivors understand their money style, values, and financial satisfaction to help them set goals and a vision for the future.

Know that there is an end to the grief and uncertainty. I’ve seen the fog lift from many clients when they give themselves the time and space to chart a course for their next stage of life and grow into it. The loved one is never forgotten, but I’ve seen new joys enter their lives once healing starts to happen.

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