When you lose a spouse, life’s foundation quakes. Simple tasks take on monumental proportions, and the death raises a series of complex issues demanding attention and careful action. Though there is no single plan that can be brought to bear in all circumstances, there are some basics, some markers that can guide a surviving spouse.
If you are the family bookkeeper and financial expert, the tasks at hand will seem simpler. If it is all new to you, the things that must be done may appear daunting, but the documents you must gather can serve as a map of sorts.
Before diving into the paperwork, two bits of common advice are: Don’t rush through any major decisions, and be ready to turn to friends or professionals – as needed – for help during this difficult time.
Finding the Information You Need
For surviving spouses, it may seem as though the path from here to the horizon is paved with paperwork. One of the initial steps that must be done is to secure at least 10 certified copies of the death certificate, which the funeral director or an attorney can help you get through the office of the county clerk.
You may know where to find much of the rest of the paperwork you will need for the legal processes. If, however, the death was unexpected and you are unprepared, here are places you should look for documents:
- Filing cabinets or file folders in house(s) or office(s)
- Safe-deposit boxes
- Financial management software
- Computer folders
To ensure you have a record of all important financial and personal contacts, request credit reports from the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Beyond that, look for address books, e-mail, and old and new regular mail. All these can provide names and addresses of financial connections, from people who owe you money or are owed money to financial institutions and entities holding assets.
Gathering Important Paperwork
Along with your spouse’s will, which likely will have funeral instructions, documents that can provide information and will be needed include:
- Marriage license (divorce papers and agreements, if applicable)
- Birth certificates (yours, your spouse’s, and those of children, along with everyone’s Social Security numbers/cards)
- Tax returns
- Mortgage documents, vehicle titles, and deeds
- Loan statements
- Trust documents
- Military service records
- Bank, investment, and retirement account statements
- Health, homeowner, and auto insurance documents
- Records of bills
- Business ownership records
- Storage locker contract(s)
One of the final steps in the surviving spouse’s paperwork shuffle should be to update all documents, titles, deeds, policies, and accounts to reflect the loss of the spouse. And if your loved one is listed in your will or other documents governing your assets, the paperwork should be changed to reflect your loss.
Identifying Assets and Debts
It is difficult to go on with life without knowing what you have and what you owe. To ensure you take advantage of all survivor and spousal benefits, begin by contacting relevant credit unions, banks, insurers, and employers. There could be pension benefits to tap, 401(k) assets to roll over, and Social Security and Veterans Administration benefits due.
- Notify all insurers of your spouse’s passing, updating paperwork and initiating payment of any benefits.
- Survivors of those who served in the military should contact the VA to see what, if any, benefits they can tap.
- Contact the Social Security Administration to see whether spousal and survivor benefits are a possibility.
- Benefits or assistance might be available through a labor union if your spouse belonged to one.
- Advisers and administrators of all investment or retirement accounts your spouse had should be told to begin assigning assets to beneficiaries. Don’t liquidate assets without first seeking the advice of a professional.
- Check with all of your spouse’s current and/or former employers to see whether any insurance payments or other benefits are due.
Other Actions to Consider
Other advice that could make a financial difference includes:
- Make sure to file medical bills with your spouse’s health insurance provider.
- For those with a child in college, check with the school to see whether the parent’s death qualifies the student for financial aid.
- If the spouse had a business, ensure proper steps are taken to ease transitions, and business clients should be notified.
- Florida does not levy inheritance or estate taxes, but keep records for filing your spouse’s final tax return.
- All creditors should be notified that your spouse has died, and tell them how outstanding balances will be handled. Check credit card accounts for insurance that might cover the balances, and cancel all credit cards in your spouse’s name.
- If you are not familiar with family bills, determine what is owed, when payments are due, and whether any payments automatically are deducted from a bank account. All these accounts, from credit card accounts to utility services, should be updated to reflect the loss of your spouse.
You Don’t Have to Go It Alone
The law firm of Chiumento Dwyer Hertel Grant has been serving families in the communities of Flagler and Volusia counties since 1973. Our dedicated attorneys assist clients with estate planning, probate, guardianship, family law, elder law, and more.
But our service hasn’t been limited to the courtroom. We take pride in the active role we play in the community’s schools and organizations. That commitment to neighbors is part of the philosophy that helps us step in and provide legal guidance to someone grieving the loss of a spouse.
Contact us today so we can put our skills to work protecting you, your loved ones, and your assets during this difficult time.