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Eight Financial Items to Address after the Death of a Spouse

Dealing with the death of a loved one can be very stressful and emotionally draining.  Unfortunately, there are a number of financial matters that need to be addressed after their death.  Here are some of the more important items to consider:

Death Certificates – typically issued by a physician or coroner and provided by the funeral home (can also be obtained online from Vital Records).  This document is required by many entities (attorney, brokerage firm, insurance company, bank, motor vehicle department, Social Security, pensions, etc.)  in order to change or distribute a deceased person’s property.  Some organizations permit a copy to be used, others require originals.  Be sure to ask them what type to provide.

Attorney and Executor/Executrix – they should be notified promptly if your spouse had a will.  They will assist with any probate, administrative and court filings that are necessary.  It is not necessary to use the same attorney who drafted your original will.   It is important to get an estimate of what the attorney charges will be, so you are not surprised by the legal services bill.  Your investment professionals may be able to help with certain items to keep your costs down.  In addition, your estate planning should be revised as needed to account for the death of your spouse.

Social Security Benefits – notify the Social Security Administration as soon as possible.  The funeral director in some cases (inquire with them) will make the report, if not you will have to contact Social Security directly (1-800-772-1213).  If your spouse was receiving benefits, you will have to return the benefit received for the month of death or any later months (Social Security benefits are paid in arrears).  Example:  If your spouse died in April, the May payment will have to be returned.  You will need to contact the bank or other financial institution if they were paid by direct deposit and have them return the payment.  If you are age 60 and over, talk with Social Security to see if you can begin collecting benefits or are eligible for a larger benefit based upon your deceased spouse’s work record.  If you have children under age 18 (with exceptions), there may be a family and/or children’s benefit available.

Pensions – the specific company or entity (state or federal agency) will need to be notified of your spouse’s death (there should be a phone number on the pension paperwork or statement).  Depending on the specific policies of the company or entity, you may have to return the last payment.  Also, if there was a survivorship option on the pension, you will need to inform the company where to send the new payment.

Credit Cards – you will need to notify the credit card company (call the number on the latest statement) of the death.  They will normally require that you provide the deceased birthdate and Social Security number along with a death certificate.  Make the notification as soon as possible to avoid any possibility of fraudulent charges.

Department of Motor Vehicles – check the website of the specific state the deceased was licensed and had the vehicle registered in.    Some states allow an immediate family member to use the vehicle until the registration or insurance expires.  Call or visit the DMV in person to notify them of the death.  There may be a form to complete and you should bring the deceased license, Social Security number and death certificate with you.

Banks and Financial Institutions – you will need to contact each specific entity to determine what is needed in order to retitle the account.  Most entities will require a death certificate and new account form to transfer the account into the surviving spouses name.  Retirement accounts have special rules which must be followed.  Your financial and/or tax advisor will be able to navigate you through them.  Be sure to take into account any account number changes to avoid problems with direct deposits or online bill paying.

Insurance policies – contact the insurance company directly or through your agent to notify them of your spouse’s death.  If you are the beneficiary of life insurance, the company will require a death certificate and most likely will set up a checking account with the proceeds.  Do not make any hasty reinvestment decisions with the proceeds.  It is better to let some time pass to determine what your needs will be.  Consult a CFP® professional who will help look at your overall situation and develop a plan based upon your needs.  If your spouse had Long Term Care Insurance, call and inform the company of the death.  You may be eligible for a refund of premium.  Contact the health insurance provider (s) and inform them of your spouse’s death.  If there were medical bills generated prior to the time of death, it may take a number of months for those to be billed and paid.  Be patient and ask for a detailed accounting of the services that were provided.  Do not pay any bills until you are satisfied that the charges are valid and your spouse’s insurance has paid first.  Enlist the help of an attorney if necessary.

Important Considerations –create a checklist and tackle the most important tasks first.  Realize it can be a very emotional and overwhelming time.  Have family members and trusted professionals help you where appropriate.   Be sure to take good notes and write down the date and time you made your call/ visit and the full name and title of the person you spoke with.    Always ask if they have a direct number they can be reached at to avoid being caught in the automated response system.  This will come in handy should issues arise that require follow up.  Understand that each institution has their own rules and you may have to supply different forms and information to each.  Be very careful giving out personal information unless you have initiated the call and/or can verify that you are speaking to the legitimate entity.  Above all, take care of yourself first and you will have the patience and energy to get this process done.

This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax or legal advice.  I suggest that you discuss your specific situation with a qualified tax or legal advisor.

The author of this article, George S. Urist, MBA, CFP® is President and Owner of Urist Financial and Retirement Planning, Inc., located in East Syracuse, New York.   George Urist has been a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner and Registered Representative with LPL Financial for over 24 years.  George can be followed on twitter @gurist and can be reached at 315-445-2147 or at  Securities offered through LPL Financial. Member FINRA/SIPC