While most of us had a wonderful holiday season and enjoyed time with family and friends, others were dealing with the loss of a loved one.  This was my grandmother's first Christmas without my granddad and they were married for 65 years.  Her Christmas traditions of cooking and wrapping presents and planning for the eleven grandchildren and thirteen great grandchildren were replaced with what steps to take for wrapping up my granddad's affairs and planning for what she would now do without him here.  

The emotional trauma of death is hard enough on people, but the financial uncertainties and transactional headaches that come along with this make things so much more complicated.  For people who just lost spouses, there are several things that need to be done, but there is a timeline I would suggest so that things seem more manageable and not so overwhelming.  

Immediately:  

  1. Notify family and friends and make sure the surviving spouse has constant support.
  2. Locate insurance policies, will, safety deposit boxes, military records, bank records, etc
  3. Obtain ten copies of death certificates.  There will be several situations where the surviving spouse will be asked for a death certificate, such as banks, insurance companies, DMV, the courts
  4. Contact the deceased spouses' health insurance company or Medicare to find out if there is any coverage for the surviving spouse 
  5. Make sure they know how to keep the household running, which means they will need to access the spouses's bank accounts right away.  Typically, the spouse with have one of three types of accounts:
    1. Joint Account with Rights of Survivorship, hopefully with surviving spouse listed as the joint account owner, which means they will have immediate access to the funds
    2. Payable on death account:  Hopefully, the surviving spouse will be listed as the beneficiary,so they will have immediate access to the funds once they are able to produce a death certificate
    3. Individual account:  If the account is solely in the deceased spouses' name, the surviving spouse will need an order from the court appointing them or some other family member the administrator or executor of the estate in order to access the funds.  This may take some  time, so the surviving spouse should be prepared just in case this is the only kind of account available to them.

In the first few weeks after death:

  1. Notify the Social Security Administration because there are some funds that may need to be returned
  2. Contact financial advisors and tax advisors
  3. Apply for life insurance, veterans benefits, pension, social security or any other benefits that the surviving spouse may be entitled to
  4. Apply with the court for the spouses' elective share
  5. Pay essential bills

In the first year after death:

  1. Work with a CPA to file the taxes for the decedent's returns
  2. Find out if the surviving spouse will need to pay estate tax
  3. If there is a trust, have an attorney help administer the trust properly
  4. Make sure surviving spouse has an estate plan

There are so many issues that arise when a spouse or loved one dies, and we need to really think about what kind of plan we will have in place when the time comes.  If you need want more detailed information, please contact your tax professional or estate planning attorney.