What if We Did Not Complete Our Estate Plans Before My Spouse Died? What Do I Do Now?

First, we would say to anyone who finds themselves in this situation, our hearts go out to you.  Dealing with an unexpected death, and then having to grapple with finding all the myriad pieces of your financial life while you are grieving can be a huge, and occasionally overwhelming obstacle.  We know that some will find themselves in the situation of not even knowing where to begin to get a handle on your circumstances.  We have put together a little checklist of items that may help as you begin to wrap your hands and minds around how to move forward, once the funeral is over and everyone has returned home.  Be sure to ask the funeral home for at least 10 certified death certificates- you will likely need them.  You will also want to make certain that ALL the information on the death certificate is correct; this can delay your ability to begin settling the estate by several months.

Start with Your Cash Flow: 

  • Find your checkbook, bank account statements, and your debit card. You might need to go to your local bank branch if you cannot put your hands on these quickly.  Take a death certificate with you, in case you need to make any changes to the titling of your accounts, such as joint checking accounts, or accounts that were only in your spouse’s name.
      • If these accounts were not also titled in your name, or listed as Pay on Death to you as an individual, you may need to go through probate court to have the ownership changed.
  • Notify Social Security and Medicare of your spouse’s death, if the funeral home did not take care of it for you. If your spouse’s social security benefit was higher than your benefit, you will start receiving the higher benefit, in most cases.
      • NOTE: make certain that social security has the correct date of death– this caused endless problems for one of our clients that took months to resolve.
  • Was your spouse receiving a pension or distributions from an annuity? You will need to contact each of them to determine what the provisions were for continuing payments to you if any.
  • You will want to take a look at your bank statements to identify automatic deposits and automatic drafts to pay bills, etc. Use this information to begin building a picture (or budget) of what is coming in and going out.

Estate Settlement Concerns:

In most cases, you will need to contact an attorney to help walk you through the probate process, and estate settlement.

  • Find any wills, trusts, etc. that you and your spouse completed, and get them to your attorney. These documents will also identify the Executor and the Trustees if applicable, that will be responsible for completing all the necessary steps for disposition. This will be the first step in identifying assets and property that will need to be probated.
  • Check for documents such as titles to property and automobiles, etc., and contracts such as life insurance that may be located in filing cabinets, safes, and safety deposit boxes, and the means to access them, such as keys, etc.
  • Once probate is completed, and titles updated, the Executor will begin the process of distributing the assets as determined in the will.
  • Be sure to review and update your own will and estate plan upon the conclusion of your spouse’s probate process.

Tax Concerns:

  • Notify your tax preparer of the death of your spouse as soon as possible; they will give you direction regarding the information you will need to gather.
  • There may be some time-sensitive actions that your tax preparer and/or financial advisor will recommend before the end of the year of death.
  • There will be a final personal tax return, due at the next normal tax filing deadline, which is generally the following April 15th. If you had previously filed a joint tax return, you will do so one more time.
  • In some cases, a Form 706 (estate tax return) will need to be filed within nine months from the date of death. Your tax preparer will let you know.

Investments:  start by contacting your financial advisor, who will assist you in what is needed to address:

  • Retirement Accounts such as IRA’s: beneficiaries should have been named, and a new account may need to be established in your name to receive the assets.
  • Other brokerage accounts such as Individual or Joint accounts that will require various types of claims forms and death certificates.
  • Review your income needs, goals, and risk tolerance with your advisor; you will also need to discuss potential tax liability regarding the various accounts.
  • If your spouse owned a business that will need to be sold, etc., you may have to hire a specialist to establish the value of the business and utilize other experts for sale.  Your attorney and advisor will help provide direction and recommendations.

Insurance Issues:

As mentioned in the Estate Settlement section, you will need to locate any insurance contracts that were associated with your spouse.  Look for:

  • Life insurance death benefit
  • Annuities- possible death benefit or a beneficiary claim will be required; your financial advisor or insurance agent should be able to help you understand your options. Make sure you understand the tax implications of your choices.
  • Group life insurance if your spouse was still working; may need to contact your spouse’s employer for more information
  • Other insurance such as Long-Term Care policies may need to be canceled.
  • Policies for home, auto, etc. will need to be updated; contact the company or your agent.

Protection from Identity Theft:

  • Cancel/close social media accounts belonging to the deceased
  • Cancel email account belonging to your spouse; make sure you have an email account of your own before you cancel it.
  • Cancel the driver’s license, passport, voter registration.
  • Cancel credit cards in their name

These items comprise the majority of the information that you may need to address following a spouse’s death.  It will take some time, and we recommend that you work closely with trusted advisors, who should offer you a sense of compassion and patience, as well as willingness to walk you through the steps needed. Though there may be time-sensitive decisions that you must make, NO advisor should ever pressure or harass you, or cause you more grief or pain.  If they do, walk away and seek help elsewhere.  This is a time that you should be supported and encouraged, with as little anxiety as possible.



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