Losing a Spouse – What Should I Do Next?

The death of a spouse completely changes one’s world.  We are often asked what a married person should do when their spouse dies.  It is a question repeatedly raised at community presentations, workshops and consultations that we offer.  

When a loved one dies, immediate family members will usually inform relatives and friends.  Typically, a surviving spouse knows the final wishes of the deceased. If not, we recommend looking for specific instructions which some people note in a Will or accompanying form as soon as possible.  The next step is to contact a funeral home to assist with final details. It is important to allow yourself and your family time to mourn this immense loss. There will be ample opportunity to address any financial implications in the months ahead.

Most couples, especially those married for a long time, have many intertwined financial assets.  While specific circumstances will vary, we want to provide a general plan of action.

There are several things that a surviving spouse should not do immediately, such as closing financial accounts, opening and/or removing items in a safe deposit box, and giving away possessions of the deceased. Acting prematurely before seeking legal advice may result in complications.

It is important to contact any employer of the deceased in case there are death-related benefits.  Their human resources staff can offer assistance in this area.

If a married couple owned real estate jointly, then full ownership automatically passes to the surviving spouse.  A new deed is only needed if you wish to transfer the real estate.

The same rule will generally apply for jointly-held financial accounts.  Contact the financial institutions where the deceased held funds to determine if accounts were jointly owned.  If any accounts are solely in the name of the deceased, the surviving spouse may be the designated beneficiary, so ownership changed automatically with proper forms.  If such accounts are without a beneficiary designation, then contact an attorney to discuss opening an estate to access those accounts.

Your insurance agent can provide documents needed to file a claim if the deceased had any life insurance policies.  This is a simple process and claims are processed relatively quickly.

You should also notify any financial advisors used by you or your deceased spouse.  If you have never met with a financial advisor, we urge you to do so. This is particularly important if your spouse was over 70 years of age.  A financial advisor can determine if “required minimum distributions” must be taken from certain accounts during the required time.

We strongly recommend that surviving spouses review and update any existing estate plan because spouses usually name each other throughout these documents.  If you do not have an estate plan, we urge you to take this opportunity to create one. These documents are always important but can be even more critical for a surviving spouse.

Losing a loved one is never easy, but proper action can avoid unwanted consequences.  If you and your spouse are still together, discuss these issues with each other and perhaps your children, if appropriate, in advance to make it easier on the survivor.  Even sharing details such as the location of important papers and passwords for digital accounts can make the process easier. If you have already lost a loved one, we hope these guidelines will prove useful to help you move forward. You can always take the first step and come to one of our free upcoming educational workshops too!  

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jeffrey bellomo

Jeffrey R. Bellomo, Esquire is a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation under authorization of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As the owner of Bellomo & Associates, LLC he advises families about the legal challenges facing them today. He counsels clients and provides solutions on: Asset Protection, Special Needs Trusts, Wills, Trust Design, Guardianships, Medicaid and Estate Planning & Administration. His mission is to provide professional caring service to all his clients.

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