28 Things You Need to Do When Your Spouse Dies: A Financial Checklist
It’s an understatement to say that the death of a loved one can be a difficult time, especially if it’s a spouse or partner that has passed. As the surviving spouse, you may be overwhelmed with funeral arrangements and financial details at a time when you’re already struggling with grief.
While some families have a financial advisor or attorney that can handle many of these tasks, not everyone has access to those kinds of resources. Gathering what must be accomplished in one spot allows you to see the scope of the work ahead and decide if you can save money by doing it yourself.
Compiling a checklist of items that must be tackled can also help you clear your mind and your plate. And it enables you to shift focus towards what matters — the mental health and emotional well-being of yourself and your family.
4 Tips for Tackling To-Do Lists When You’re Grieving
Before diving into the mountain of practical matters that need attention when a spouse dies, it’s important to emphasize that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. If keeping busy is your way of coping, that’s OK.
Everyone should be allowed to handle the loss of a loved one in their own way and in their own time. But if you’re wondering how to move forward, the following tips are a good place to start.
1. Gather Documents and Get Organized
Printing out the checklist we’ve provided is a good place to begin after a spouse passes, but you’ll also need to gather a lot of documentation. Get everything sorted, make copies and keep everything in the same place, like a binder or expanding file.
2. Prioritize Yourself and Your Family
Nothing on this list is more critical than ensuring you have the time and emotional bandwidth to grieve. Self-care is crucial, but so is seeking out a support system and, eventually, grief counseling or other professional help as needed.
See tips for leaving your house unattended, whether it’s for three days or three months.
3. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
You might prefer to keep busy today, but you have no idea how you’ll feel tomorrow. Many experience grief as a rollercoaster of emotions, especially in the first few weeks. Let close family members or friends you trust handle as many arrangements as possible.
4. Avoid Making Major Decisions
It’s tempting to prioritize selling the house or giving away belongings after your spouse’s death, but most experts advise against making big decisions. Focus on doing the hard work of dealing with your loss and leave sorting through your financial situation to a time when you’re more clear-headed.
Documents You’ll Need When a Loved One Dies
If you have a financial professional on speed dial, they’ll have many of the documents you need. If not, you may need to hunt through computers, paper files or a safe deposit box to locate everything. The following is a list of documentation you’ll need in the coming weeks.
- Birth certificate
- Death certificate
- Will or trust
- Marriage certificate
- Bank statements
- Records of credit accounts
- Real estate and property titles
- Retirement accounts and/or pension information
- Investment accounts
- Loan accounts
- Credit report from major credit bureaus
- Military service records, including discharge papers
- Tax returns (last three to five years)
- Medical records
- Health insurance documentation
Make several copies of these documents, especially the death certificate. You’ll be asked to provide proof of death to get the ball rolling on accessing accounts at financial institutions or to receive death benefits from various government agencies.
What to Do When a Spouse Dies: A Financial Checklist
This list is divided into a timetable so you can decide what to do (or delegate) now and what can wait until later.
If it’s easier for you to save this list for later, here’s a printable PDF you can download.
Things To Do ASAP
1. Secure a Legal Pronouncement of Death
If your spouse’s passing happened in assisted living, a nursing home or even the hospital, a medical professional such as a hospice nurse declares the time of death.
If your loved one passes at home or elsewhere while not under medical care, call 911 to report the death. Depending on where you live, the paramedic might pronounce the death or transport to a local hospital for a doctor or nurse to do the pronouncement.
It’s important to note that the legal pronouncement is the first step to securing death certificates, so make sure you do this before contacting a funeral home or crematorium.
2. Verify Organ Donation
Is your spouse an organ donor? If you’re unsure, check their driver’s license, which usually notes organ donor status. If they want their organs donated, have your spouse or partner transported to a local hospital immediately. Some organ transplants must happen within a few hours after receiving the dead person’s body.
3. Contact Family, Friends, Employers and Schools
If making phone calls feels overwhelming, hand this task off to a family member. Sort through contacts and notify immediate friends and close family. You can make a social media post to alert casual friends and acquaintances later.
It’s also crucial to notify your spouse’s employer and your own. The HR department can help you track final paychecks, verify pension and insurance information, and receive benefits like COBRA coverage.
If you have school-aged children, contact the school to excuse absences and postpone schoolwork for the next week or two. You may also need to arrange for childcare, depending on the age of the children, as well as emotional support.
4. Clarify Funeral or Burial Plans
Don’t contact a funeral home and start planning the memorial service just yet. If your spouse didn’t leave behind specific directives, communicate with other family members to ensure you’re on the same page. If there’s a conflict, the funeral director may have suggestions about how to resolve it.
5. Make Arrangements for Property, Pets and Mail
You may need to leave the house or even pets unattended in the coming days or weeks as you lay your loved one to rest. Ask friends or family to provide pet care, housesit, and pick up the mail and packages — or file a stop mail request yourself with the local post office.
See tips for leaving your house unattended, whether it’s for three days or three months.
Things to Do the First Week
You’ve got some time to accomplish these tasks, but it’s better to get the ball rolling sooner rather than later on anything associated with the funeral, looming bills or a death benefit.
6. Contact Life Insurance Companies
The claim process for life insurance policies can take days or even weeks. Contact the insurance company immediately if you’re relying on a payout to cover funeral expenses. It may also be worthwhile to contact former employers if you believe your spouse had other insurance policies.
7. Report the Death to the Social Security Administration
Reporting your spouse’s death to the Social Security Administration is important because it ends their government benefits. It’s a hassle if you receive their Social Security checks after death because you’ll have to return them. However, you may be eligible to receive other benefits.
8. Make Funeral Arrangements
Once you’ve made arrangements with a mortuary or crematorium, start planning services to memorialize your loved one. A will often specifies these details, or there might be a prepaid burial plan. If your spouse or partner was a veteran, contact Veteran Affairs to determine if they’ll provide burial benefits or funeral services.
9. Consider an Obituary
You don’t have to write one yourself, but consider publishing an obituary in a local newspaper or online. If a close friend or family member has the skills to write an obituary, it can be a service that provides solace and closure for you and your family.
Things to Do Within the First Two Weeks
Often the most difficult time is once the chaos of death has calmed and everyone goes home. If you’re not up to tackling a to-do list, delegate to other family members, financial professionals or attorneys.
10. Make Multiple Copies of the Death Certificate
Make as many as 10 or more copies of the death certificate. Why so many? This document is what you’ll need to gain access to account holder information and to fill out the appropriate forms for benefits and much more.
11. Contact Financial and Legal Experts
Maybe you don’t have an elder law attorney on retainer (who does), but there are still other financial or legal experts, like a tax preparer, that you should consult in the aftermath of a death. And if your spouse didn’t have a will or trust, you’ll have to go to probate court, which can get complicated fast.
12. Locate the Will
If you haven’t located the will or trust documents yet, try to do so now. Most of the time, the surviving spouse becomes the executor of the will, but this has to be certified in writing to start settling the estate.
13. Get Access to Passwords and Review Bills
Whether it’s a password manager or a handwritten list taped to the side of the computer, you will need account access to figure out which bills are coming due. At the very least, pay bills for the essentials, like utilities, cell phone service and the mortgage.
14. Notify the Bank
When you and your spouse have joint accounts, this process is pretty simple. Once the bank is presented with a death certificate, they’ll remove the deceased from the account. If you did not have joint accounts, the bank usually has the account holders name a beneficiary Payable on Death (POD).
Things to Do Within the First Month
After the hectic first few weeks settle, you’ll have more time to deal with the estate and take some steps to prevent identity theft.
15. Inventory Assets
When an estate goes before a probate court judge, there will usually be an inventory of all assets. This includes not just bank accounts but real property like cars, houses, furniture, jewelry and more. You can hire an appraiser to take this off your plate.
16. Take the Will to Probate Court
Without an established trust that details beneficiaries, you’ll have to go to probate court to execute a will. A probate court exists to verify that a deceased person’s debts have been paid before dividing the remaining assets among beneficiaries.
17. Cancel Services and Subscriptions
Whether it’s an unused subscription to HBO Max or an Amazon Prime account, close accounts in your spouse’s name before they incur charges or get caught up in a data breach.
Some of our recommended apps for managing subscriptions can help you in this effort.
18. Contact Credit Bureaus
Head off identity theft before it happens by notifying one of the three major credit bureaus of your spouse’s death. Fortunately, the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) will inform each other of the death and save you the trouble of two more phone calls.
19. Close Credit Card Accounts
While the credit bureaus will eventually inform them, you can contact customer service for each credit card to close the account. Any outstanding balances will have to be squared away with funds from the estate. Be sure to cut up or shred the cards.
Before shutting down the card, check previous statements for recurring charges on things you might have missed such as utilities, insurance or subscriptions. Make a note to contact those companies and transfer or close the account to avoid fees.
If you or your deceased spouse have become a victim of identity theft, here’s what you should do to report the theft and recover your credit.
20. Cancel Driver’s License
Contacting the Department of Motor Vehicles in your state is another critical step to prevent identity theft. Unfortunately, you’ll often have to do this in person. Fair warning that the license will be confiscated and destroyed.
21. Terminate or Update Insurance Policies
The securities offered by certain policies your spouse held may not be as valuable or relevant to you. Call insurance providers and adjust or cancel health, auto, home and other policies accordingly before you get charged another round of premiums.
Other Things to Do Eventually After Your Spouse or Partner Dies
The sum of a life lived can add up to a million and one details. And all those threads require some time and patience to unravel, so be gentle with yourself as you attend to these final tasks.
22. Delete or Memorialize Social Media Accounts
Deciding how to handle social media accounts for your deceased spouse can be difficult. Most platforms can turn the page into a memorial for “remembering,” but you must submit a death certificate to make the update.
23. Cancel or Forward Mail
Shutting down email accounts is another step to prevent identity theft, but it can wait until you’ve had a chance to sift through everything else. Email providers require a death certificate and verification that you’re the administrator of a will or a family member.
Screening snail mail to catch bills you’ve missed is a good strategy, but you’ll eventually need to contact the US Postal Service to provide documentation of the death, register on the do not contact list and have mail forwarded.
24. Remove From Voter Rolls
The process for removing a deceased person from the voter rolls varies state by state, but calling the county clerk is a good place to start. They can walk you through the process and specify what documentation will be required.
25. Transfer Property Titles
If you haven’t notified your loan servicers or mortgage companies about the death, do so now and request that any property titles be transferred into your name as the sole owner. You’ll have to provide proof of death and that you are the beneficiary.
26. Notify the Financial Aid Office
When the spouse or partner leaves behind a child attending a college or university, the financial aid office should also be informed. Fill out an updated FAFSA to confirm your financial situation has changed.
27. Update Your Own Will & Insurance Policies
It’s not just your spouse’s will you’ll have to contend with. You’ll need to update your own estate plans and any insurance policies listing your deceased spouse as a beneficiary.
For estate planning on a budget, use our guide to creating a will for under $100.
28. Reassess Your Finances
Upon the passing of a spouse or partner, life looks different in many ways, including the financial picture. Assess what your income and expenses will look like and create a new budget and savings plan to reflect that reality.
Make Plans Before Your Spouse Passes
Knowing your spouse or partner is going to die doesn’t make it any less painful. But you can ease the stress of handling practical financial matters by being proactive. Here are a few things you can do to prepare for your own death or the death of a loved one.
- Draw up a will or do estate planning.
- Make an advance directive or living will.
- Put in place a power of attorney.
- Create a living trust and identify beneficiaries.
- Communicate your wishes to loved ones.
- Gather documentation and contact information.
- Share passwords and computer access, and delegate digital assets.
- Consult with an attorney or certified financial planner.
What to Do When A Spouse Dies Frequently Asked Questions
Social security benefits in your spouse’s name should be terminated upon death. You can contact the Social Security Administration to ensure this happens. If you receive checks in their name after death, you must return them.
However, as the surviving spouse, you may be able to collect on your spouse's social security or other benefits. Contact the SSA for more information.
Contact Veterans Affairs to report the death of a veteran as soon as possible, as they are entitled to specific burial benefits and funeral services. You’ll need to provide Veterans Affairs with the deceased’s Social Security number or VA claim number and their branch of service.
Your spouse is certainly not alone. Two-thirds of adults living in the United States have no will. Without a will, probate courts get involved in deciding who should settle the estate and who benefits. It’s recommended that you contact a probate court within two weeks of death to start the process.
Kaz Weida is a senior staff writer at The Penny Hoarder covering saving money and budgeting. As a journalist, she has written about a wide array of topics including finance, health, politics, education and technology for the last decade.