You can never prepare yourself for your spouse or partner’s death. Their passing leads to a period of unimaginable grief, and that’s obviously a huge understatement. Unfortunately, as anyone coping with the loss of a loved one knows there are many time-sensitive legal and financial obligations that must be dealt with during an extremely emotional time that feels like it’s adding insult to injury. But, unfortunately this part of death is a part of life.
Getting your spouse’s affairs in order can in of itself be overwhelming, but having a checklist beforehand can assist you should you find yourself in this unfortunate situation. It is always a good idea to have the help and support of a trusted family member, friend or adviser to help sort things out and provide you with guidance at this time to ensure you are making sound, rational decisions.
While your own checklist may vary slightly, the below is a comprehensive outline of necessary “to-do’s” once your spouse passes:
Obtain multiple original copies of the death certificate – Obtain at least 10 – 15 certified copies. You may need your marriage certificate for proof.
Locate your spouse or partner’s will, and determine if probate is necessary. Probate is the legal process for reviewing the assets of a deceased person and determining inheritors, and may or may not be necessary depending on the state of the deceased’s will. If your spouse died without a will, things could get complicated. Contact the attorney for help in settling the estate. (Generally, a will would be kept with an attorney, or in a lockbox or safe deposit box. You can work with a digital copy to begin with to sort out the estate, but you will need a signed original document to ultimately work with. Your estate attorney can help with the process of settling the estate, determining if probate is necessary, and navigating the probate process.
Notify your spouse’s employer — The human resources department can help with information on benefits due to beneficiaries as well as retirement or pension plans. If you or your children were covered through your spouse’s medical insurance, ask about continuing coverage. Notify your employer, too, since the death of a spouse may be a “life event” that could trigger benefit decisions.
Notify the IRS and obtain a Tax ID number for the estate – Once someone has passed away their individual social security number loses its effective purpose and value. As a result, a new tax ID number must be obtained from the IRS to authorize activities on behalf of the estate. This new number is commonly referred to as an E.I.N., which technically means “employer identification number,” though it can be more helpful to think of it as the “estate identification number.” Either way, this new estate E.I.N. can be applied for online, by FAX or mail, and will ultimately be used to close the estate when filing the final Form 1041 tax form. www.irs.gov
Contact the Social Security Administration – Depending on circumstances, there is a good chance you (or your minor children) may be eligible for survivor benefits. (Learn more about survivor benefits from ssa.gov.) You cannot accomplish this online; to report a death or apply for benefits, call 800-772-1213, or visit your local Social Security office. Doing this as soon as possible can help prevent long delays before you get your next Social Security payment, and you may even qualify for a one-time death benefit. If your spouse served in the armed forces, you might be eligible for additional benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, so contact your local branch office.
Contact your spouse’s former employers – There may be things that benefit you, such as life insurance policies, a pension, or an old 401(k).
Gather Financial Documents then compile an inventory including outstanding bills & assets – Start collecting the financial records, including banking records, bills, credit card statements, tax returns, insurance policies, any outstanding mortgages or loans and retirement accounts. If your spouse did not have an organized file system, this might take a long time. Companies may need to be called directly and you may need to provide proof of your spouse passing before being able to gain access to the accounts. It can be helpful to also indicate which bills are ongoing (such as utilities, rent/mortgage, credit cards or car loans).
Inventory Assets: One of the largest responsibilities of an executor is compiling a complete inventory of all assets in the estate and their estimated fair market value. While this is formally required for determining whether probate is necessary or what inheritance taxes may be due, it’s also a best practice to help minimize the likelihood of arguments among family members. Be sure to access any safe deposit boxes in order to inventory the contents or open a new security box to safe-keep any valuables found within the home. This accounting will be important for sharing as an accurate and transparent reporting to the probate court, advisors, family and on income tax forms of the estate.
Notify all insurance companies, including life and health– Ask for links or hard copies of claim forms and instructions. The sooner you start, the sooner you may receive benefits. Auto and homeowners/renters insurance will need to be updated.
Notify banks and any other financial institutions – This is important, but also tricky. As soon as you do so, the accounts will most likely be frozen.
Retitle & transfer assets that were joint or just in your spouses name – Close accounts that were in your spouse’s name only or change the account holder information. Ask your financial institutions for the appropriate forms. Your county recorder is a good place to start. If your spouse was the sole name on an account, such as a utility, or a subscription service, such as a mobile phone, make sure to change the name if you want to keep the service, or terminate the account if you don’t.
Contact all three major credit bureaus – Request a copy of your spouse’s credit reports so you’re aware of all debts and any open accounts. The three major bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) can place a notification in the credit report that says “Deceased—do not issue credit,” so new credit isn’t taken out in your spouse or partner’s name. As a surviving spouse, you may not be responsible for the payment of credit card accounts held by your spouse alone, and many credit card companies will write off the debt owed to them.
Notify creditors – The public posting of a notice to creditors is the formal process for informing any creditors of the estate of their opportunity to submit any unpaid bills or outstanding debt of the estate. If this is overlooked or skipped, it’s possible for creditors to surface months or even years afterwards with a legal right to demand payment forcing heirs to reopen the estate.
Cancel or Transfer Services, utilities, drivers license, voter registration – Look for your loved one’s bills and account information, so you can call these companies to make any changes. Remember to check for utility services like power and water, as well as subscriptions like streaming services or gym memberships. If your spouse was the sole name on an account, such as a utility, or a subscription service, such as a mobile phone, make sure to change the name if you want to keep the service, or terminate the account if you don’t. Fraudsters’ often use techniques like “ghosting” to strike victims after death, causing a nightmare of problems for surviving family members.
If there is a child in college, notify the financial aid office – you may qualify for more money.
Tackle the digital footprint – Close email accounts and delete or memorialize social media accounts. Many online or digital platforms have a unique process outlined for closing an account, while others like Facebook simply allow others to memorialize the account.
Closing digital accounts – Be sure to talk with family members to reach an agreement before any accounts are closed, especially if you’re able to download or save any data. This is also true for email accounts. Don’t forget to look for any files, purchased media or pictures stored on computer hard drives or cloud storage accounts. This may be hard to access but has value and there is a process to getting it.
Meet with your accountant/tax preparer – Taxes for your spouse must be filed and paid in the year of death. Especially if the tax preparation is complicated, it may be helpful to rely on a tax professional. Additionally, a federal or state “estate” income tax return may need to be filed.
Distribute assets to heirs & beneficiaries then close the estate – Once you feel confident that all claims have been settled and taxes paid, the personal representative can begin to distribute any remaining assets to named heirs & rightful beneficiaries of the estate. Upon final distribution of the estate’s assets, and assuming no ongoing family disputes or creditor claims exists, a final estate inventory reporting can be filed with the probate court in order to officially complete the process and close the estate.
Avoid making any major decisions – Give yourself all the time you need to mourn first. Take care of the immediate issues, but then let life settle and catch your breath. Also, avoid making any additional investments or large purchases, especially if you were not actively involved in your family’s finances before the death.
Speak with a financial advisor or planner – Once you’re ready it’s imperative to assess how your Income and Expenses will change. Living expenses for one person are often not much less than living expenses for two. You should re-do your financial plan and evaluate your new life situation.
Take care of yourself and your family – When all is said and done – this is the most important part. Grief has many stages (5 to be exact) and it’s easy to get distracted by “all of the things to get done.” Make sure you have a support group or healthy outlet for mourning and properly processing your feelings. Honor your loved one by taking care of yourself and going forward.