When Your Spouse Dies: Taking the Helm

Seeking Support

It is important to realize that grief affects everyone differently. Depending on your relationship with your spouse, whether you have children, your life experiences, your belief system, and many other factors, the grieving process can vary considerably from one person to another. There is no “right” way to grieve, and there is no time frame for recovery.

Some people find solace among others who have experienced a similar loss, such as a bereavement support group through a local hospital, place of worship, or community center. Others may find comfort and relief through work, exercise, a new hobby, or time spent with good friends. Reach out to those who have offered to help you. Whatever you do during this time, remember to take care of yourself and know that you are not alone.

Of course, certain matters will require your immediate attention, such as notifying family and friends; making funeral arrangements; and contacting your attorney to review the will and handle the legal aspects of your spouse's estate. Let your family, closest friends, and trusted advisors help you with these details and short-term decisions, but proceed cautiously with major financial decisions, such as selling your home, borrowing or lending money, investing, making major purchases, or career changes. Consider the following financial checklist:

Obtain several certified copies of the death certificate. They will be needed when claiming death benefits from insurance companies, as well as from Social Security.

Consult immediately with the family attorney, who will guide you through many of the legal and tax issues.

File for death benefits. Call your local Social Security office, life insurance professional, and, if applicable, the Veterans Administration or the employee benefits manager at your spouse's employer.

Find out about medical coverage. If you depend on your spouse's insurance, contact his or her employer and exercise your right to keep that policy in force. Learn the options for either converting or acquiring new coverage.

Keep detailed records, tracking all of the money that comes in and goes out in the first month or two. This information will be needed to create a budget.

Manage assets wisely. Postpone some financial decisions that are less important and can wait. Later, you may be in a better frame of mind to make additional decisions.

Start with short-term financial goals, and then tackle the more complex decisions, such as whether or not to sell the home and how to manage assets over the long term.

Taking Charge of Your Finances

If your spouse was the primary breadwinner and managed the family finances, it may take time to assess your financial situation. Your attorney, financial professional, or even a family member or friend can help you sort through important papers and documents and create a financial strategy that will work for you. During the first few months, pay the outstanding bills and monitor cash flow and liquidity. Keep a running list of financial questions as they arise, and be sure to seek guidance and support.

As you begin to make decisions, there will be important issues that need to be addressed, such as determining your income needs, managing money on your own, re-evaluating insurance coverage, and continuing to meet the needs of your children. Some of your decisions will come easily, especially if they are based on financial need. Others may be based on what you feel is best for you and your family. Will you want or need to work? If you are currently employed, will you stay in the same position? If you have not worked for some time, will you need to acquire more education or enhance your technical skills? It may take time to feel comfortable making major decisions on your own, but you can consult with professionals for help determining the next steps you need to take.

Ideally, a family will have their financial affairs in order before a sudden loss occurs. However, life is unpredictable. Therefore, be sure to organize and safely file important papers, such as marriage and birth certificates, tax returns, retirement account records, insurance policies, investment and bank statements, and estate planning documentation. Should such circumstances arise, you or your loved ones will be better prepared.