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The Business of Surviving a Spouse

These lists are not all-encompassing as some individuals may have much more complicated financial situations, but they will provide you with a good starting point that can save you time, money, and energy.
04/29/2016 04:16pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Jean Gerber via Unsplash

When my husband died suddenly at a fairly young age, I felt as if I'd forever be suspended in grief, but when the phone began ringing incessantly thanks to insurance reps, mortuary salesmen, and an array of other services in which I had no interest, I realized that the business of life moves on whether or not you're ready to. However, there is good that comes out of being pushed to get your financial ducks in a row: you'll feel empowered even in the midst of your grief. You'll still mourn deeply, but this empowerment will remind you that you can and will persevere.

There will be many moments where decisions are a little too personal, but there is no right or wrong -- just what's best for you at that time. For instance, soon after my husband's death, I decided to sell his SUV: I couldn't afford the extra monthly payment nor did I want such a visible reminder of him. In retrospect, it may have made more sense to sell my own older car and keep his, but in situations like these, there aren't always clear-cut answers, and that's OK.

On the other hand, there are decisions that need to be made that truly are simple and straightforward, and they usually have to do with getting the affairs of the deceased in order. It may seem daunting and overwhelming, but with the right guidance and preparation, you'll find that you can absolutely tackle this endeavor.

After an emotional week of funeral arrangements and then the funeral itself, I consulted with an estate planning attorney. (Never hesitate to seek help when you're grieving. I couldn't have gotten through the toughest parts of my grief had it not been for the ability to set aside my pride and get comfortable asking for help.)

The attorney said that I needed to assess my husband's debts and assets, and submit claims for benefits due to me as his spouse -- but to do so, first I had to gather the following documents:

  • At least 10 original death certificates (which you may request through the funeral home or the Vital Statistics office in the state in which the death occurred)
  • Will and trust documents
  • Insurance policies (including life, health, and auto)
  • Most recent credit card and mortgage statements
  • Investment account statements
  • Past three years of tax returns (in case of audit)
  • Marriage, birth, and (if applicable) divorce certificates of the deceased's spouse and children
  • Credit report
  • Checking and savings account statements
  • Mortgage and other loan documents
  • Car registrations
  • Social security information

Once I had all that information at my fingertips, I notified the following institutions of his death and was easily able to provide them with anything they required to close his accounts and submit claims:

  • Employer (in my husband's case, he was self-employed, but had he been employed, I may have been eligible to receive pension benefits, 401(k) funds, unused vacation and holiday time, etc.)
  • Social Security (800-772-1213 or socialsecurity.gov)
  • Veterans Affairs, if applicable (800-827-1000 or va.gov)
  • Post office
  • Department of Motor Vehicles
  • Election board
  • Insurance companies
  • Credit bureaus
  • Financial institutions -- including banks, mortgage and credit companies (and any other lenders), investment firms, and pension services
  • Service providers -- including utilities, cell phone, gym memberships, club dues, magazine subscriptions, etc.
  • Miscellaneous -- such as charities that automatically withdraw a donation every month from a checking account

These lists are not all-encompassing as some individuals may have much more complicated financial situations, but they will provide you with a good starting point that can save you time, money, and energy.

Nevertheless, did it feel cold and callous to close my husband's accounts and remove his name from our shared bank accounts so quickly? Indeed, it felt like a betrayal. But I also remembered that my husband would have wanted me to make smart choices and keep myself safe from financial fraud. (My attorney warned that there are thieves who specialize in studying obituaries and stealing the identities of the deceased.)

My advice to those who lose a loved one is to deal with the black-and-white matters first. You'll feel encouraged and hopeful for your own future, and more ready and able to tackle the truly difficult decisions. For me, the hardest ones were the most personal: deciding to stay in our home, cleaning out my husband's closet and figuring out what to donate to charity, recording over his voice on our answering machine, and taking down his photos for a brief period. Everyone will struggle with having to make the tough calls, but know that if you can get your partner's financial affairs in order, you are capable of anything.