What to Do When Your Spouse Dies: A Checklist For the First Year

Filed Under (Probate) on 07-05-2012

When a spouse dies, death of a spouse, probate process

By Marilyn McWilliams, JD

All marriages end – either in divorce, or someday when “death do us part.” When this inevitable and sad time comes, a widowed spouse may feel in a rush do everything – settle the bank accounts, file the will, make a plan.  But, in fact, the surviving spouse is often best served taking things slowly and carefully. 

Here’s a timeline of things to do within the first year:

As the shock and emotions settle in, remember that there’s not too much you need to do immediately.  You simply must:

•    Locate – but not necessarily go through – key documents: your marriage license, birth certificates for yourself and minor children, a will, bank records, insurance policies, and military records;
•    Notify friends and family;
•    Stack and store incoming mail – but don’t go through it;
•    Make funeral arrangements, if desired; and
•    Call you or your spouse’s health insurance company (or Medicare) to find out about coverage for you and your minor children; and
•    If there is a will, within ten days of the death, file (or lodge) the will within the County District Court where the deceased lived.*

Within the first month

•    Get state-certified copies of the death certificate;
•    Inform Social Security (if relevant) and/or any organization distributing defined benefits (such as the VA or an employer offering a pension) of your spouse’s death;
•    Apply for life insurance, VA, Social Security, pension or other relevant benefits;
•    Pay essential bills such as your mortgage or rent and insurances, but defer any large expenses; and
•    Plan a six-month budget.

Within six months

•    Identify and catalog your assets;
•    Work with an accountant, financial planner or lawyer to complete a financial plan;
•    If there is a trust, work with an attorney to begin administering the trust.
•    Consider reducing your living expenses but, if possible, delay any move for a year;
•    Consider joining a support group or obtaining grief counseling for yourself and your children;
•    Work with an accountant to understand – and file- your spouse’s tax returns; and
•    Understand if you need to pay estate tax.
•    Work with your attorney to understand if any assets should be disclaimed.

Within nine months

•    Ensure any federal and inheritance tax returns are filed; and
•    File any disclaimers.

At one year
•    Make sure your own estate planning is complete; and
•    If necessary, get life insurance to protect your children.

*The initial paperwork to probate an estate can be filed six days after the decedent’s death. You have up to three years to initiate the probate process

For more information, see Life After Death – a legal and practical guide for surviving spouses by Marilyn W. McWilliams, J.D.