9 Financial Steps to Take After the Death of a Spouse

Quick Answer

After the death of a spouse, allow yourself time to grieve. When you’re ready, get organized by creating a list of financial steps to take. Important first steps include obtaining certified copies of your spouse’s death certificate, gathering documents, contacting Social Security and notifying insurance companies.

Woman sitting at grave with hand on grave

When your spouse passes away, the grief and shock can be overwhelming. It's unfortunate that in the immediate aftermath, you're faced with a to-do list of legal and financial tasks—especially if you're the executor of their estate. Being prepared and quickly handling tasks such as notifying insurance companies, ensuring you have access to bank accounts and more can help cushion the financial blow of your spouse's death.

Completing these key financial tasks as soon as possible can expedite the legal and financial part of the process, ensure you and your loved ones are protected and allow you to truly grieve.

1. Obtain Certified Copies of the Death Certificate

Many of the financial tasks ahead require certified copies of your spouse's death certificate. To start the process, you'll need their legal declaration of death; the process for obtaining one can vary depending on if your spouse died at home, in a hospital or nursing facility.

The funeral home or cremation service should be the ones to prepare and file the death certificate, and then provide you with certified copies. After that, you can request additional certified copies from your area's vital records office.

2. Gather Essential Documents

If your spouse had a last will and testament, you'll need to locate it, since it dictates how to handle many financial matters. In many cases, your spouse's property will pass to you upon their death, but there are some conditions where this may not be the case.

When someone dies without a will, state laws dictate procedures. If you're the executor, it's helpful to work with an estate attorney and an accountant. These professionals can help you ensure debts are paid, assets are distributed and taxes are handled correctly.

You'll also want to gather any other essential documents, including your spouse's identification records, additional estate paperwork (like trusts, power of attorney or funeral prepayment), insurance policies, deeds or titles for property, financial account information and the like. Try to create a system to organize information and tasks to make it easier; consider asking a loved one to help if it feels daunting.

3. Contact Social Security

An important step is to contact the Social Security Administration to report your loved one's death. If your spouse received benefits, this will stop their checks. You should also find out if you (and, if relevant, your children) are eligible to receive survivor's benefits, which can provide a helpful financial cushion. The funeral home may do this notification for you, so ask if they'll handle it or if you should.

If your spouse had a pension or was in the military, also inquire with those organizations about if you're entitled to receive any spousal benefits.

4. Notify Insurance Companies

When your spouse passes away with life insurance, the death benefit isn't automatically distributed; you must notify the insurer and file a claim.

If your spouse used a life insurance agent, contact them to begin the process. If not, you can contact the insurance company directly to file the claim.

You should also contact other insurance companies where your spouse had policies, such as health, home or auto insurance. If you were covered by policies together, you'll need to inquire about how to remove your spouse and continue coverage for yourself.

5. Address Financial Accounts

Go through your loved one's paperwork and list all financial accounts you can find, from checking and savings to retirement and investments. It's even better if you also have access to logins or beneficiaries to streamline the process.

Then you need to notify each financial institution that your spouse has passed away and provide copies of the death certificate. For accounts that were only in your spouse's name, you may have to close the accounts. For joint accounts, you'll likely retain the account with full access and will just need to have their name removed.

If your spouse died with debt, let those lenders know they've passed. Debt is paid from the estate of the deceased person. If your spouse's estate doesn't cover the balances, you will only be responsible for the debt if it was a joint account, an account you cosigned on or you live in a community property state (though laws vary by state). Some medical debts can also be passed on to spouses or children upon death. But certain assets are always protected from creditors, including life insurance policies, living trusts and retirement and brokerage accounts.

6. Review Bills and Payment Due Dates

This emotional time can be a blur, and it's easy to lose track of routine things like when your bills are due. It can be even harder if your spouse was the one who handled bill payments.

However, it's critical to stay on top of bills so you don't lose access to necessary utilities like power or mobile phones, and so you don't miss payments and hurt your credit score. It's ideal to go through all of your bill accounts and make sure they're up to date. If accounts were in your spouse's name, you'll need to contact those companies to change the name to yours.

Consider setting bills on autopay if they aren't already; this ensures they're always paid automatically. Also make sure any existing bills on autopay charge accounts that will remain active and funded. If this task feels too overwhelming, consider sitting down with a trusted friend or family member to go over bills and ensure you aren't missing anything and have a plan.

You can also use this time to cancel any services or subscriptions that your spouse used but are no longer needed. This can take some things off your plate and save you money.

7. Plan for Short-Term Expenses

Coping with a spouse's death can come with hefty expenses, from planning a funeral to hiring lawyers and accountants to help you tackle estate logistics. While life insurance or proceeds from other benefits can help cover these costs, it may take time for payments to arrive.

It's wise to find out the timeline for any expected benefits or payments so you can tell if they'll arrive in time to cover any of these short-term expenses. If not, consider how you'll budget and pay for them before you can reimburse yourself. For example, do you have an emergency fund or other personal savings you can draw from or a credit card you can use? Are there any assets you can sell? Should you look into taking out a short-term personal loan?

8. Avoid Identity Theft

Scammers and fraudsters sometimes commit identity theft using information from the recently deceased. To help prevent this, contact one of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion or Equifax) to notify them of the death. You only have to contact one, and they'll notify the others.

This step isn't totally necessary; since you contacted lenders about your spouse's death, they will report the death when they send their next update to the credit bureaus. The credit bureaus may also receive a death notice from Social Security. However, this can take time and leave your spouse's identity at risk, which could compromise your finances. You can speed up the process by contacting one of the credit bureaus yourself to ensure your spouse's death is swiftly noted.

It's wise to contact your state's department of motor vehicles to cancel your spouse's driver's license, as removing this record takes away another potential opportunity from criminals. You may want to cancel your loved one's passport and close their email accounts to help prevent identity theft or fraud.

9. Meet With a Financial Planner

If your spouse died earlier than expected, your future financial plans may be up in the air. You may be uncertain if you can afford to keep your house, or if you should work longer to make up for lost income from your partner.

Consider consulting a certified financial planner who can review your situation, help you understand how your spouse's passing impacts you financially and recommend any changes or actions.

Don't panic if you can't afford to hire a professional. Some organizations, such as Wings for Widows, offer free financial counseling and support for those navigating the death of a spouse.

Keep an Eye on Credit

You already have a lot on your plate, but there's one more thing to keep in mind: In the aftermath of losing your spouse and tackling many legal and financial changes, such as closed accounts, higher or lower debt balances or perhaps missed payments, it's likely you'll experience at least some minor changes to your credit.

Make sure to monitor your credit report, which is free through Experian, to keep an eye on changes. You'll be alerted to any issues, such as if an account that was supposed to be closed is still open, or if you were also mistakenly reported as deceased. The sooner you catch any inaccuracies, the faster you can correct them, giving you one less thing to worry about.