Seven Steps After A Spouse's Sudden Death

Published Monday, January 12, 2015 at: 7:00 AM EST

The funeral is over, the mourners are gone, and now you're left with the rest of your life after the unexpected death of your beloved spouse. What's a devastated widow or widower to do? For starters, DON'T do anything rash, such as selling the homestead or cashing in all of your stock holdings right away. It may be difficult, especially from an emotional standpoint, but you can pick up the pieces slowly and get your finances in order. Here are seven steps for moving forward:

1. Meet with your professional advisors. One of the first steps – if not the absolute first – should be to contact your attorney, accountant, and financial advisor. These professionals can provide guidance for handling all of the legal, tax, and financial matters relating to you and your deceased spouse. Their counsel will be valuable as you work your way through the remaining six steps on this list.

2. Get the will probated. Assuming your spouse had a valid will and you're the executor - typically the case with married couples - you must begin to probate the will by filing a petition with the appropriate county office. Depending on the particulars, it can take as little as a few weeks or as long as a few years for the process to be completed. Keep your attorney in the loop the entire way.

3. Apply for benefits. Normally, you'll be entitled to Social Security benefits, including a one-time death benefit, plus Veteran's Administration (VA) benefits if your spouse was a military veteran. A surviving spouse over age 60 at the time of the other spouse's death may claim survivor benefits from Social Security. But don't continue to cash Social Security checks for a deceased spouse; you'll likely have to pay those back. It may be necessary to visit the local Social Security office and to contact the VA when appropriate. Also, don't forget to inquire about benefits from your spouse's employer if your spouse was still working.

4. Collect life insurance proceeds. Once reality sets in, you have to go about the regular business of making payments on the mortgage, the car loan, and other debts. Life insurance proceeds could be needed sooner rather than later. Examine your records to determine what you're entitled to receive through any private and employment-based policies. Your insurance agent can help, and your financial advisor can consult with you on how best to deploy any insurance benefit.

5. Review the books. Once you've had a chance to catch your breath, make a comprehensive review of your financial affairs. Go over your checkbooks, files, and online ledgers covering living expenses, loans, and other financial obligations. Separate accounts according to whether they're in your spouse's name, your name, or were held jointly. Then let banks, insurance companies, and other entities know about your spouse's death. And keep copies of these communications and verifications.

6. Change account titles. Begin the tedious process of re-titling accounts at banks, brokerage houses, and the like. Generally, you automatically will be granted a change on accounts owned as joint tenants with rights of survivorship (JTWROS), but the financial institution may require documentation. Contact each institution and comply with its procedures. Make sure you have enough death certificates to meet all of the obligations.

7. Start planning for the long term. Last, but not least, after you've addressed all of the issues requiring prompt attention, look to the future. It's time to circle back to the advisors who helped you at the outset. Reevaluate your investment portfolio, taking your evolving circumstances into account. Update your estate plan with an emphasis on passing wealth to your heirs, such as children and grandchildren, with minimum tax erosion. An estate tax return generally has to be filed within nine months of death. Finally, make those lifestyle choices – perhaps selling a home, heading off on extended travel, or both – that suit your changing needs.

Also make cancellation notices. Your review may reveal gym and club memberships and magazine and journal subscriptions that you can cancel right away. Re-titling your financial accounts will take precedence over this type of bookkeeping, but try not to let this linger, either. Usually, a phone call or a quick note will be enough to take care of things.

This article was written by a professional financial journalist for Gebhardt Group, Inc. and is not intended as legal or investment advice.

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