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Recently widowed senior woman mourning her deceased husband

What to do when you're newly widowed

by Kelly Gicale | Contributor
June 3, 2022

In the days and months after you lose your spouse, things can feel incredibly overwhelming. Even if your spouse had a terminal illness or spent time in hospice before they passed away, nothing can truly prepare someone to lose their husband or wife. And during one of the most difficult times in a person's life, there are a lot of things that a new widow or widower must handle after losing their loved one.

In this article, you will find some useful guidance as you navigate the time after losing your spouse. Even if you and your loved one had a comprehensive estate plan in place, and even if you have experience in estate settlement through losing other family members, there are aspects of losing a spouse that you likely never thought about before.

As most of us avoid thinking about what life will be like after we lose our husband or wife, no one can be completely prepared for what comes next. However, by knowing these common steps to take and items to address, you can simplify the logistical aspects of life after loss and feel more in control of as you enter the next chapter.

What do I need?

After your spouse passes, it can be hard to know what to do first. The best way to get organized and feel like you have a plan in place is to find the most important documents you will need to rely on to answer the many questions that will inevitably arise. This can include the following common legal and other documents:

Funeral arrangements

Any documents you might have relating to your spouse's funeral plans will be the most important to find first. This is because any plans you might have made in this regard will need to be implemented before anything else will take place. These documents should have the contact information for the companies and religious or other organizations that will play a role in your spouse's funeral, wake, mass or any other ceremony or event that your spouse envisioned. It also should contain their preference for cremation or burial, including the epitaph. Finding these documents, if you and your spouse have them, will be hugely beneficial for starting the process of planning the next weeks.

Will and trust

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It also will be essential to find your spouse's last will and testament. With most married couples, their will directs that everything in their estate be left to their spouse, but this may not be the case. Especially if your spouse was married previously or had children with another person, their property distribution could differ. If that's the case, then you'll want to be sure that you understand what their will contains, how it might impact you and your plans going forward, and what assets you can expect to receive in the coming months.

Similarly, if your spouse had a revocable living trust, then you will want to secure that as well. In most estate plans with both a will and trust, the trust typically contains the majority of asset distribution information, so the trust instrument will be important to have in order to understand how their assets will be passed.

Insurance policies

Documents regarding any insurance policies will be useful to have on hand to start the process for receiving your proceeds, assuming you are listed as the beneficiary. If your spouse had life insurance in place, they secured it for this very reason, and the cash that the policy will provide can be a lifeline. This is especially true for widows who relied upon their spouse's income for financial support.

Bank, financial and retirement account statements

Depending on the dynamics of your marriage, your spouse might have been the person who managed your finances for you both. If that's the case, then it will be especially critical to locate recent statements from all of your financial accounts, including checking, savings, brokerage and retirement ones. While you do not need to have everything organized and accounted for right away, it will be helpful to know where you stand financially, and which accounts you may need to use in the initial days to pay for things like your spouse's funeral and other ongoing household expenses. Once you do have a chance to meet with a financial professional to receive guidance on planning your future, having these documents ready will make that process much easier and smoother.

Death certificate

Often, the funeral home can assist you with this. You likely will need your spouse's birthdate, Social Security number, parents' names, place of birth and other general information to complete this process. It can take several days to weeks to obtain a death certificate, and as many financial institutions require an original copy to process any claims or to remove your spouse from any accounts, it's helpful to order five to 10 copies to keep on hand for when you need them later.

Who do I contact?

When your spouse passes away, there are many different people and entities who must be notified. Here is a list of those that likely need to be contacted soon after you lose your husband or wife:

Family and friends

It might seem obvious, but right after we lose a loved one, we can sometimes still be in shock or disbelief. This often makes it hard to think about anything at all, including who to reach out to first.

Starting with family members or friends that you trust and feel comfortable delegating responsibility to is usually the best option. By reaching out to those people in your life who know how to support you during this time, you can get help with tasks and a shoulder to cry on, both of which will be truly invaluable during this trying time. One idea to consider is asking one of your friends or family members to help you keep track of any flowers, gifts or cards sent you so that you might be able to respond or thank them at some point in the future.

Often, newly widowed spouses say that email is the best, most efficient way to notify other family members, friends and colleagues about their loved one passing. By sending out a single email, you can take care of contacting most of the people that you know want to be informed about your loss. Depending on your family dynamics, you may wish to wait until you have the funeral arrangements in place before sending this out. Or you can send an email to close family and friends telling them about your spouse's passing and then send an email to more distant contacts later on with the details of his or her funeral. Regardless of your choice, do what you can to minimize the burden on you while still notifying people who care about your spouse about their passing.

Funeral home, crematorium, church, etc.

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After contacting your spouse's family and friends, you will want to begin implementing the funeral arrangements. If you and your spouse prepared the arrangements before his or her passing, then you can simply call the companies and organizations you selected and execute the plan. If they did not prepare or document their wishes in this regard, then you will want to make decisions like whether to bury or cremate, where their final resting place will be, which kinds of ceremonies or services they would appreciate, etc. Your loved ones can be instrumental in making these kinds of choices and in finding and contacting the appropriate entities to inquire about pricing and availability, so if you can lean on others to assist you with this, it's helpful to do so.

Local newspaper

If you wish to have an obituary published in your local newspaper, then you will need to find out how to have one included by either contacting them directly, searching their website to see how to submit one, or working with the funeral home, which should have extensive experience in this process. You will only want to embark on this item after you have the funeral arrangements set, as the obituary will serve as notice to your larger community of the mourning or celebration of life services.

Your spouse's employer

If your spouse was still working for someone else when he or she passed away, then it will be important to notify their supervisor. This is necessary to prevent any issues with receiving income that may need to be returned. As your spouse's boss will be able to handle the internal HR process, it is best to reach out to directly to them to avoid any unnecessary headaches in that regard. HR will then also be able to assist you with accessing their retirement account(s) and any other vested benefits that pass to you according to the beneficiary designation or other estate planning documents.

Social Security Administration

If, on the other hand, your spouse was retired and receiving Social Security income when they passed away, then you will need to contact the Social Security Administration sooner rather than later to inform them about your spouse's passing. The funeral home should contact them, but it's best not to leave this to chance. If you were to receive a Social Security payment after your spouse dies, this will need to be returned immediately. It can cause you much unwanted hassle if you were to inadvertently deposit the check, or worse, actually spend the funds.

Attorney

If you already have an estate planning attorney that you and your spouse were working with prior to their passing, then contacting that attorney soon after the funeral would be a good idea. Your estate planning attorney can immediately assist you with settling your spouse's estate and efficiently completing asset distribution.

Having an experienced estate planning attorney by your side as you navigate probate for your spouse's will and distribution of other assets outside of probate is extremely beneficial. With their assistance, you can move quickly to start the process, and more importantly, complete the process with fewer hurdles, hassles and problems. It can save you time and perhaps also money, as even though you will be paying the attorney, they can recommend strategies that may mean preserving more of your spouse's wealth. It also can help ensure that you have access to the financial resources they left to you sooner, alleviating any concerns about paying bills and other expenses.

After your spouse's estate settlement is completed, you also will need to work with your attorney to update your own estate documents. As mentioned, most married couples name their partner to receive their assets upon death. If this is the case for you, then you will need to update your will, trust, beneficiary designations and other transfer-on-death accounts to name someone else of your choosing to receive your assets after your own lifetime.

Financial advisor or planner

Along with a Legacy Plan Network Attorney, it can be incredibly helpful to seek assistance from a financial professional in the months after you lose your husband or wife. This is because regardless of what your spouse's estate contained or the amount of life insurance proceeds you receive, most widows and widowers will need a new financial plan once their spouse passes. Your goals will likely have changed, as providing for your spouse will no longer be an issue. You also may have other concerns if you did rely upon your spouse's income that could be addressed through effective financial planning.

Summary

While the time after losing your husband or wife can be extremely challenging, taking the necessary steps to arrange for their funeral, settle their estate, and prepare for the future can be much easier with help from the right people. Family and friends are useful to turn to for personal matters, especially in figuring out how your loved one would have wanted to be remembered if he or she did not document this beforehand. However, when it comes to legal and financial matters, a knowledgeable attorney can be an invaluable resource and partner to have in your corner. Having this support and expertise available to you can mean all the difference in avoiding preventable hardship and confusion during an already stressful time.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at legacyassuranceplan.com.

Phone - 844.445.3422
Email - info@legacyassuranceplan.com
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