When a spouse passes away

The passing of a spouse is a devastating time in a person’s life and one that throws their world into turmoil. While in the midst of grieving, they’re confronted with a multitude of responsibilities requiring their attention — not only the immediate tasks of preparing for memorial services and notifying family and friends, but also beginning to tackle the requisite legal notifications and financial changes.

In my years of experience working with clients who are navigating this experience, it’s been helpful for provide them with a list of the tasks they need to attend. The list should distinguish what needs to be done immediately from what can be done in the next few weeks or later.

A checklist like this helps to prioritize essential financial responsibilities, so grieving widows and widowers don’t feel entirely besieged by the sheer number of tasks involved, including calling insurance companies, Social Security, Medicare and banks –– on top of the funeral planning and grieving.

In addition to the checklist, I wanted to share specific observations I’ve determined to be most important when working with grieving clients over the years.

FIVE PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS

1. Don’t feel as if you need to do everything all by yourself. Ask for help from siblings, children or close friends. You’re under a lot of stress — don’t be afraid to recognize when you need help and delegate tasks accordingly. Most likely your family members will appreciate the chance to help, which enables them to participate in honoring the person you’ve lost and ensure that all responsibilities are fulfilled. This might include making phone calls to family and friends and helping prepare for any memorials the family plans to hold. You might also consider asking a close family member to help you look over your financial affairs to make sure that you’re paying all of the bills during the first month.

2. Don’t think you have to do everything at once. There are a few things you should do within the first week, such as starting to plan for funeral services, looking into veteran benefits if your spouse was a veteran, notifying friends and family of your spouse’s passing, requesting 10 to 15 death certificates from the funeral home because each financial institution or insurer will require an original death certificate, and contacting your estate planning attorney for guidance if there are any special things that need to be done according to your spouse’s will.

Within the first couple of weeks after the passing of your spouse, you will want to call their health insurance provider and Medicare to inform them of your spouse’s death so you can stop paying premiums. Call your spouse’s employer (if he or she was employed) to ask if there were death benefits or other benefits or eligible pensions. Call your financial adviser to start reviewing financial accounts and confirm any automatic distributions that might be set up. Call life insurance companies if your spouse had life insurance policies and also call any other insurance companies with which you have policies for property and casualty (home and auto), long-term care and disability. Review bank accounts, bills and credit cards to confirm all expenses are either set up to be paid automatically or will be paid on time.

It’s important to have access to your spouse’s phone and email accounts to confirm that you’re seeing and reviewing all financial notifications. This is also important if your spouse had additional security features set up, such as two-factor authentication. You can use password reset features to access websites if you did not share passwords. Keep in mind that not everything must be done immediately. Ask your advisers for a comprehensive checklist that includes specific tasks and a timeline.

3. Enlist the expertise of your professional advisers. You should lean on your expert team — your CPA, financial adviser and estate planning attorney. They are there to guide you through the most difficult time of your life and will be able to advise on which concerns you should prioritize, especially to ensure that your finances are still in line not only for you but for generations to follow. Be sure to include a family member or friend on your phone calls or meetings — they can use their “clearer” hearing to take notes and guide the conversation, so you don’t have to remember everything. It’s also a good idea to ask those you consult with to follow up with their recommendations via email.

4. Understand that life will be different. After the services and the initial mourning period are over, you may be alone for long periods — this is the most significant change for many people who lose a spouse. Make sure you are in regular communication with friends and family. Think about whether some kind of grief counseling is right for you, and make regular plans to get yourself out of the house. Everyone experiences grief and loss differently. You’ll want to determine the right course for yourself.

5. Be prepared for a lot of paperwork. Unfortunately, there will be many administrative headaches. These include everything from changing the name on car titles, utility bills, insurance policies, investment accounts, bank accounts and phone bills to administering your family trusts and making updates to your own estate planning documents. Work with your team of financial experts to organize the tasks by priority and tackle them over time.

Every path through loss and its aftermath is different. It’s important to remember to give yourself plenty of time and space to grieve, rest and remember your loved one.

As you work through all the legal notifications, formal changes and other responsibilities, try to make time on your calendar to pursue activities and passions that are meaningful to you. This might include creating a whole new checklist — one that focuses on your goals for the next chapter in your life.  

[More: How to respond to the unexpected call from a recently widowed client]

Nickolas Strain is senior wealth advisor and wealth advisory committee chair at Halbert Hargrove.

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