The death of a spouse can be one of the most challenging events that life has to offer. In addition to the emotional toll, an avalanche of legal and financial issues will arise that try to throw your life further into disarray. My goal is to make the process a bit easier by providing those who have found themselves recently widowed with a checklist of the most important matters you must deal with after a spouse passes. While not all-inclusive, this is critical information that can save you precious time, money, and energy during a time when such relief would undoubtedly be welcomed.
- Gather Essential Documents
The first step is to obtain vital documents which are necessary to wrap up your spouse’s final affairs. The death certificate is extremely important, as most financial institutions, governmental agencies, creditors, and other organizations will refuse to discuss your loved one’s final affairs without it. It is recommended that you obtain at least ten to fifteen certified copies in order to provide one to each organization that previously dealt with your spouse’s financial affairs. It is also important to locate your spouse’s Social Security card, birth and marriage certificates, insurance policies, final credit card and mortgage statements, deeds and titles to real property, automobile titles, stock certificates, and tax forms for the past three years. If your spouse had an estate plan set up prior to death, locate the originally executed documents for admission in court.
- Funeral Arrangements and Organ Donation
Obviously one of the first tasks you will need to accomplish involves the preparation of funeral and burial arrangements for your loved one. Ensure whether or not your spouse prepared an advance health care directive or another document which outlines exactly how they wish to be buried and whether they desire for their body or organs be donated. Determine if your spouse pre-paid his or her funeral expenses to a funeral home. If not, have the executor of your spouse’s estate pay these expenses out of estate funds. Prepare an obituary to honor the life and legacy of your late spouse. If possible, bring together key family members for an early conversation to ensure everyone is involved and on the same page during this process.
- Administer Your Spouse’s Estate
Determine if your spouse created an estate plan prior to their death, whether that be a simple Will, Trust, or Powers of Attorney. It is likely that your spouse named you as the executor of their estate, and therefore you will be responsible for wrapping up their final affairs. This process includes gathering all property owned by your spouse at death, preparing an inventory and valuation schedule for the property, notifying all creditors of the estate, paying all debts and taxes owed by your spouse, and distributing their estate to the beneficiaries named in their estate plan. If your spouse did not create an estate plan (i.e. they died intestate), you will need to work with the local Probate Court in order to determine how the estate is to be distributed. Either way, it is important to contact an estate planning attorney who can guide you through the process.
- Notify Necessary Parties
It is important to alert all financial institutions, government agencies, subscription services, creditors, and other parties of your spouse’s death. For example, notifying government assistance programs such as Social Security will ensure that any benefits owed to you as the surviving spouse are paid out. Contact any insurance company where your spouse owned a policy to notify them of your spouse’s death, and claim proceeds payable to you. Inform the institutions and employers where your loved one maintained a retirement account, and determine if any benefits can be transferred to you. Talk with your financial advisor to determine the best method of accumulating benefits payable to you. For example, surviving spouses have the option of rolling over a deceased spouse’s IRA into their own account and “re-start” the clock on taking required minimum distributions.
You should also make certain that all automatic withdrawals or deposits from your spouse’s bank accounts are stopped immediately, cancel any credit cards, and close or re-title all bank accounts in the process. Contact utility companies and other service providers to change or discontinue service. It may be helpful to review your spouse’s bank statements to identify other less obvious recurring charges that need to be canceled, such as gym memberships, Internet accounts, or club membership dues. File a change of address with the post office to remove your spouse’s name from all mailings, or re-route the deceased’s mail to the executor of their estate. Notifying these parties will also serve to protect against identity theft and financial fraud by preventing thieves from collecting government benefits or opening accounts in the name of the deceased.
- Update Your Personal Estate Plan
Finally, it is critically important to update your personal estate plan in a timely manner to avoid your assets being distributed in ways that you neither expect nor want. You will want to remove your spouse as a beneficiary of your estate and re-determine how your assets should be divided following your death. It will also be necessary to remove your spouse as executor of your estate, or as agent under powers of attorney, and name a new individual to act in those capacities.
Assets that allow you to name a beneficiary (life insurance policies, retirement plans, investment accounts/bank accounts, Beneficiary Deeds, etc.) are not controlled by a Will or Trust. Instead, they will be paid directly to the individual(s) you have listed as your beneficiary. You likely named your spouse as primary beneficiary when you were married, so you will want to update the beneficiary designations on all assets that are payable on death to your spouse to ensure that they are removed.
Finally, if you and your spouse created a Qualified Spousal Trust during your lifetimes, it is important to realize that the creditor protection provided by the Trust ends once a spouse passes away. Therefore, if you work in a high-risk profession (e.g. medical professional, attorney, etc.), it may be advisable to obtain liability insurance to protect yourself from any future claims.
Dealing with the death of a spouse can be a difficult process, but working with a professional and understanding what steps are involved can at least bring some comfort and order to a difficult situation.
About The Author
Andrew T. Peebles is an associate and member of the Estate Planning Practice Group of Carnahan, Evans, Cantwell, & Brown, P.C. Mr. Peebles is a member of the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association (Probate and Trust Committee), the Missouri Bar (Probate and Trust Committee), the Greene County Estate Planning Council, and the American Bar Association (Real Property, Probate, and Trust Law section).