What To Do After Your Spouse Dies: A Checklist

The wife of a friend of mine passed away recently. He’s going through the grief and loneliness you’d expect after being married 53 years. And now he has a new challenge, one I’ve seen with so many other widows and widowers—dealing with the long list of legal and financial items that come up after the death of a spouse.

The grief of losing a loved one obscures many of the mundane tasks required to settle your spouse’s estate. Here’s a checklist of what to do after a spouse dies.

Don’t make any life-changing decisions for 1 year

There are some things you may want to do, like sell the house, because of all the memories. But this is a very emotional time and emotional decisions can come back to haunt you. My dad always said, “If you have to make a decision right now, it’s generally the wrong thing to do.” When mom died, I reminded him of that and he agreed.

The first year after the death of your spouse, you’ll not only be dealing with your loss, but with the calendar—the birthday, anniversary, holidays and other special dates. Each one will carry lots of emotional weight, and that’s enough to deal with as those dates come along. You don’t need to add in major decisions like selling property, making large purchases, giving money or possessions to kids or relatives.

Request certified copies of the death certificate

You’ll need certified copies of the death certificate as you settle your spouse’s estate—switching or closing accounts, filing life insurance claims, etc. The funeral home can order copies for you. If you need additional copies contact the clerk of court or a similar government agency in the county where you live.

Some organizations only require a copy of the death certificate, not a certified copy. Be sure to ask which is needed.

Request letters of testamentary

A letter of testamentary is a document issued by the probate court showing that you have the legal authority to act on behalf of your spouse’s estate. Many organizations require a letter of testamentary as well as the death certificate. 

You obtain a letter of testamentary by filing the will and death certificate with the probate court along with additional information about the value of the estate. The court issues the letter of testamentary after it verifies the information.

Gather financial records

Whether you are listed as one of the owners of an account, or accounts are in your spouse’s name only, you’ll need records and statements for:

  • Bank accounts
  • Investment accounts
  • Credit cards
  • Mortgages
  • Car loans
  • Other installment loans
  • Tax returns
  • Insurance policies
  • Retirement accounts
  • Utility bills
  • Mobile phone bills
  • Magazine subscriptions

As with almost everything else, financial providers will require proof of death and proof that you are authorized to deal on the estate’s behalf. Some may require that you mail the proof documents. Others will allow you to fax or email those documents.

Talk to your spouse’s employer or employer HR department

There may be several things to deal with at your spouse’s employer, such as a 401(k) plan, company-provided life insurance, and any remaining compensation due. If your spouse worked for a government or non-profit organization there may be a 403(b), 457, or TSP retirement plan. And if you are covered by a company medical plan, find out how long your coverage will last so you can make arrangements for other coverage.

File insurance claims

The easiest way to file life insurance claims is to contact the insurance agent who services the policy. That person can begin the process for you. Or you can call the insurance company directly and request a death claim package.

The insurance company will send you their required forms. You’ll return the completed forms along with a death certificate and the insurance company will process the claim. You may have several options to receive the life insurance payout, which include lump sum, annuity, or installment payments.

Probate your spouse’s estate

Probating the estate begins with finding the will. It may be in a safe at home, in a filing cabinet or the safe deposit box at the bank. If you can’t find it, there will be a copy in the files of the attorney who drafted the will.

With the will and a copy of the death certificate, you go to the local probate court. There, you will be given the forms necessary to move through the probate process. The probate court can also give you instructions on how to work through the probate process since most people settling estates are individuals who have never probated an estate before.

Switch accounts and cancel credit cards

There may be some accounts that were in your spouse’s name only that you want to keep. If so, have those accounts changed into your name. If you don’t want to keep an account, terminate it and ask for confirmation that it has been terminated.

Get a copy of your spouse’s credit reports so you’re aware of all debts in his/her name. The three major credit reporting agencies are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Request that a “Deceased-do not issue credit” notice is attached to each of the credit reports. 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. However, laws differ in community property states, such as Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. There, the surviving spouse may be responsible for credit card debt. When you contact the credit card companies, ask whether you are responsible for the debt where you live.

Cancel driver license

Cancelling your spouse’s driver’s license will remove their record from the department of motor vehicles and help prevent identity theft in the future. As an additional precaution, consider destroying all physical copies of the driver’s license.

Cancel memberships

Another potential source of identity theft that could cause you problems in the future is your deceased spouse’s memberships in clubs, organizations, etc. The memberships rarely include a person’s Social Security number, but they often contain information an identity thief finds useful. And personal information about a deceased person is much more valuable than that of someone still living. This is not an all-inclusive list, but memberships may include:

  • Health club
  • Public library
  • Professional organizations
  • Civic organizations
  • Cultural organizations (ballet, theater, symphony, museums)
  • Book clubs
  • Alumni association
  • Discount clubs
  • Automatically refilled prescriptions
  • Newspaper & magazine subscriptions
  • AARP
  • AAA motor club

Contact government agencies

Social Security Administration

SSA must be notified that your spouse is deceased. You can call SSA at 1-800-772-1213. But in most cases, the funeral home will report the death for you. A death cannot be reported online.

Social Security Administration

Contact SSA for instructions about receiving a Social Security Survivor benefit. If you are full retirement age or older you will receive 100 percent of your spouse’s benefit amount. If you are between age 60 and your full retirement age you will receive 71.5 percent to 99 percent of your spouse’s basic amount. Additionally, you may qualify for a one-time death benefit of $255.

Department of Veterans Affairs

If your spouse served in the armed forces you may be eligible for benefits such as burial expenses, a survivor’s pension, healthcare, or life insurance.  You can contact the VA at 1-844-698-2311 or call the VA location closest to you.

Update beneficiaries

It’s likely most or all of your accounts that name a beneficiary listed your spouse as that person. They can include:

  • Life insurance policies (Don’t forget policies through your employer)
  • Bank accounts registered as Transfer on Death (TOD) or Pay on Death (POD)
  • Investment accounts registered as TOD or POD
  • Retirement accounts – IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, SEPs, SIMPLE IRAs, TSPs
  • Deferred Compensation Employer Plans
  • 457 Government Plans
  • Annuities
  • Health Savings Accounts
  • Pensions
  • Wills
  • Trusts

Changing a beneficiary requires a form with your signature. In some cases, the form may need to be notarized.

Shut down or memorialize social media accounts

This may be difficult unless a digital assets clause has previously been added to your spouse’s will. The terms of service agreement approved before each social media account was opened, says your digital assets are non-transferable and the passwords are protected, even from the person settling your estate. 

A digital assets clause supersedes any terms of service agreement and allows you to retrieve pictures, emails, texts, airline miles, online banking—anything stored in the cloud. And then shut down or memorialize the account.

I have a Facebook friend who’s been dead for a few years and I still get a notice every year to wish him a happy birthday.

Also, don’t forget to close your spouse’s email account(s).

Update emergency contact information

Who should be contacted in case of emergency now that your spouse has passed away? Update that information anywhere emergency contact information is required, especially with doctor offices and medical facilities. Also, put current emergency contact information in the glove compartment of your car, in your wallet, and in your purse.

Update legal documents

  • Will-make any necessary changes
  • HIPAA-submit new HIPAA forms to doctor offices and medical facilities with the name(s) of persons you now authorize to receive information about you.
  • Powers of Attorney-list the person(s) who now become your General POA, Financial POA, and your Healthcare POA. It can be the same person, or there may be a different person for each category.

Planning ahead before the death of a spouse

Pre-planning before a spouse dies will make things easier on the survivor. Creating an asset inventory is a large part of that pre-planning. The asset inventory is a list of:

  • Bank accounts
  • Investment accounts
  • Retirement accounts
  • Credit cards
  • Deeds
  • Mortgages
  • Other loans
  • Insurance policies
  • Safe deposit box(s)
  • Business documents
  • Passwords
  • Military documents
  • Anything that needs to be handled after the passing of a spouse

You should include account numbers, telephone numbers, email addresses, a contact person, if possible, the location of documents (for example, safe deposit box, filing cabinet in the bedroom, etc.), any information that will make it easier on the surviving spouse to settle your estate after you’re gone.

Yes, there’s a lot to handle when your spouse dies and it won’t get done overnight. If you think about all the things that have to be done on the to-do list it will seem impossible. When I talk with my clients who have a spouse pass away, I ask them this question, “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer: one bite at a time. And that’s how you have to approach the checklist of what to do when your spouse dies. Handle one thing at a time and eventually, it will be done.

This material is for your information and guidance and is not intended as legal or tax advice. Legal and/or tax counsel should be consulted before any action is taken.