What do you do when you lose a spouse?

The loss of a spouse can be very traumatic to the survivor in many ways.  When the spouse who passes away is also the one spouse who took care of the couples’ finances, the death can be even more troubling.  The surviving spouse is often left not knowing the location of all the important financial documents or even where their funds are invested.

Here are some tips to remember if this tragic event ever happens in your family:

Save the mail. Save the next 90 days of mail with all recent financial statements.  You may need to transfer the billing or ownership names, terminate services or modify them.

Online billing. Many people now receive billings and notices for a myriad of services and products via email.  It’s important to find all of the user names and passwords for your online financial sites.  If you are not comfortable with the computer, contact a trusted friend to assist you.

Gather legal documents. Gather together all important legal documents.  Find your marriage certificate, your spouse’s birth certificate and Social Security card, insurance policies, military discharge papers, wills and trust documents and your spouse’s retirement and investment account records.  Then make an appointment with your estate planning attorney.  It may not be necessary to probate your spouse’s estate depending on what assets you owned, how they were titled and what planning had been completed.  If probate is necessary, the attorney can help you gather appropriate information to prepare for that process.

Safety deposit box. Check in your safety deposit box for any valuable or important items and documents.

Change ownership documents and file claims. Because of the type of assets owned and the form of ownership, you may be able to transfer ownership of many of your family assets immediately.  For most of these transfers you will need at least a death certificate.  You’ll need a dozen or more, depending on the complexity of the estate.  Most people obtain these from the funeral home, but if it has been more than a few months since your spouse died, you can also contact your local or state offices to obtain a certified copy for a nominal fee.   Have your pertinent documents handy as you notify banks, investment firms and retirement plan holders of your loss. Also, don’t forget to contact former employers where your spouse may have had benefits to see what he or she was entitled to.  There may be life insurance benefits due.  Speaking of life insurance, be sure to contact your insurance companies of all sorts.  Certainly companies with which your spouse had life insurance, but also disability, health, auto, etc.  You will need to take some action (file a claim, modify or cancel the policy) on almost all of these policies.  For all of these calls, note the date of the calls and the name of the person with whom you spoke.

Request your free credit reports.  Each year you are entitled to receive a free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies.  Go online to AnnualCreditReport.com.  NOTE, while you may be lured to many other “free” sites, this is the only site where you can obtain truly free credit reports!  Other sites will generally make you (or trick you) buy a credit monitoring service.  Once you have your reports, make sure the information on them is accurate.  Most importantly, if negative information appears that you believe is incorrect, notify the credit bureau that issued that report of the inaccuracy and then contact the creditor to make the correction.

Debts. You may want to discuss significant debts with your financial or legal professional before contacting them in order to understand your rights.  It’s important to know whether you have any personal liability for your spouse’s debts before agreeing to resolve outstanding balances.  If your spouse’s death makes it unlikely you’ll be able to pay debts where you do have liability, contact the company and try to negotiate a payment plan or a reduction in the amount owed.  But before you make that call, think about what you will say.  Some counselors in this area suggest practicing introducing yourself out loud and saying your spouse just passed away before launching into your request; it can soften the person on the other end.

Moving forward. If your spouse handled most of the financial planning, you’ll need to think about managing money moving forward.  I usually suggest contacting several sources to get input.  Close family members and your legal, financial and accounting advisors can provide suggestions.  If you are so inclined local community colleges and some churches have courses on managing finances.  Private instructors may also be available.  If you would rather have someone else handle these matters, some financial advisors will assist you for a fee.

Finally, consult with an estate planning attorney to get your legal documents in order and discuss related estate planning issues such as long term care insurance and how to prepare to pass your estate on to your beneficiaries without some of the difficulties you just encountered.

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