My spouse has died: Now what about our finances?

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 27, 2000

Dealing with personal finances is difficult following the death of a spouse. Although the surviving spouse needs time to adjust and grieve, important financial decisions often must be made — or in some cases, not made — soon after death. Here are some questions commonly asked by surviving spouses.

What do I do first? Making funeral arrangements and taking care of any organ donations are priority. Get 10 to 15 copies of the death certificate from the funeral director. You’ll need them to claim life insurance, Social Security benefits, employment benefits, investment accounts and so on. Also notify any financial advisors you have.

The other major thing to be done, as difficult as it may be, is to sort through your important financial documents — your spouse’s will, insurance policies, household bank statements, investment account, trusts, deeds, debts, bills, employee benefits, checkbooks, safe deposit box and so on.

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Look for cash resources, such as money market and saving accounts. You’ll probably need cash to take care of funeral expenses, estate settlement, and ongoing living expenses. Sufficient cash reserves also can help you delay some financial decisions until you are ready to address them.

What do I do about the insurance? Send in a death certificate copy and the benefits claim as soon as possible. The claims process should take no more than two weeks, but can take several. While it’s best not to make major financial decisions soon after the death of a spouse, you may need to decide fairly soon how you want to receive the insurance benefits. Payout choices might include a lump sum, interest payments, or an annuity, and some of these choices are irrevocable. You could delay your decision for a while if you don’t need the money immediately, or collect interest for now and the principal later. If you take the money in a lump sum, put it into a short-term, interest-paying investment such as Treasury bills or a money market. Nothing risky at this stage.

What about my spouse’s employee benefits or pension? Learn what benefits you are entitled to, such as medical coverage. Contact the retirement plan administrator to learn your survivorship benefit options. Pay attention to deadlines. You may need to make decisions regarding pension benefits fairly soon. But don’t rush decisions sooner than necessary.

Should I change my investments? Not right away, unless you have reason to believe investment money is tied up in something excessively risky. In time, however, you will want to reexamine your investments. Your needs as a single person will have changed and some of the investments may no longer be appropriate. You may need more income, for example, or feel uncomfortable about the portfolio’s risk.

What about my house? It’s generally best not to make major changes for a while.

What other financial steps should I take? Establish or revise a household budget. Household income and expenses usually change with a spouse’s death, with income often declining. A budget should be done in the context of changes you may want to make to your overall life goals. Another step is to consider putting your credit cards in your own name to establish your own credit.

What about professional advice? You may need an attorney to handle estate issues, and a financial planner to advise on important financial decisions, such as how to handle pension benefit options. Whoever you work with should be competent, trustworthy and sensitive to your personal needs at this difficult time.