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To Do List for Surviving Spouses

This article was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Kiplinger’s Retirement Report by Susan B. Garland, Contributing Editor Profiles.

The checklist below can help surviving wives and husbands figure out which tasks to address early on.

Gather documents: If your late spouse ran the household finances, it would be great if an organized filing system was left behind, as well as all the passwords you need to access computer files. But if you need to dig through the piles yourself, start a filing system using colored manila folders with the headings: banking, bills, credit card statements, taxes, life insurance policies and estate documents. You will need to gather:

  • Social security numbers
  • Birth and marriage certificates
  • Military discharge papers (DD-214)
  • Company benefits booklet
  • Car titles
  • Powers of attorney
  • Current statements for bank, brokerage and retirement accounts

Get 5-10 copies of your spouse’s death certificate: The funeral director can help with this. Many financial institutions require a death certificate to close an account or to change ownership of investments. You’ll need the certificate to transfer title on real estate and to claim life insurance and veterans’ benefits.

Make sure to pay your bills on time: This includes credit cards, utilities car loans, property tax, insurance premiums and mortgages. You could incur late charges if you let these tasks slide. (If you are hit with such charges, ask for a waiver due to the circumstances.)

Notify Medicare and health insurance companies that you will no longer pay your spouse’s premiums. Also cancel club memberships and magazine subscriptions that you don’t need. Explain the situation and you may get a partial refund.

Keep a joint checking account for at least a year. Occasionally, odd checks to the deceased spouse come in, if you close or retitle the account, there won’t be a place to put them.

Get some help. Create a “financial support team.” The group could include an accountant, a lawyer, a financial planner, and a trusted friend or family member who has good financial skills.

Assess your cash flow. While you should postpone big financial decisions, you should take stock quickly of your expenses and income. Make a list of your income sources: Social Security, pension payments, dividends, interest, job earnings and IRA distributions.

Write down your fixed expenses. Fixed expenses should include groceries, mortgage payments, utilities and insurance. Look at your checkbook to see if there are recurring payments on your credit card. Check your deceased spouse’s check register. Make a separate list for your discretionary costs, such as gifts and travel.

Remember, some income payments may decline. For instance, if your husband was receiving a Social Security benefit and you were getting a 50% spousal benefit, the spousal benefit will disappear. But some expenses will end as well, such as your spouse’s Medicare premiums. If you are short on cash, start chipping away on the discretionary spending.

Collect life insurance benefits. If you can’t find the life insurance policy and you don’t have an agent, go through checkbook registers and canceled checks to see if there were any checks written to an insurance company.

Prepare your estate. Until you meet with your estate lawyer, hold off on placing your spouse’s assets in your own name. You have nine months from the date of your spouse’s death to file a federal estate tax return. Some states have earlier deadlines for filing returns for state estate and inheritance taxes.

Check with your spouse’s employer. If your spouse was employed at the time of his death, call the benefits administrator to ask about benefits due to you. Besides life insurance, these can include unpaid salary and bonuses, accrued vacation and sick pay, leftover funds in a medical flexible spending account, and stock options.

Claim a social security benefit. A widow or widower is entitled to a survivor benefit that is equal to 100% of the deceased spouse’s benefit, as long as the survivor waits until full retirement age to collect.

Consider some long-term help. You don’t have to go through this alone. There are trusted advisors and experts who can help you. If you start to feel like you need help with housekeeping, cooking or other daily activities, it might be time to consider senior living options like assisted living. The socialization from being around other seniors can be beneficial when you start to feel lonely and miss your spouse.