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Death of a spouse checklist: What to do when a spouse dies

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Oliver Rossi/Getty Images

Losing a spouse is one of the most challenging things a person could go through. Unfortunately, compounded with the stress and sadness of mourning are some critical tasks and financial decisions you'll need to make.

The last thing you want to worry about while your family is grieving is finding important financial information and account numbers. The following death of a spouse checklist can help you and your loved ones navigate steps both big and small during this difficult time.

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Make any necessary preparations

Letting others know about your spouse's death is the first and perhaps most difficult step, but it can result in a strong support system forming around you. Your family and friends are likely to offer empathy and compassion during this time and may even take a few items off this checklist for you. You also might consider speaking with a member of your clergy or a counselor specializing in grief to help you process any immediate feelings of sadness.

Leaning on these loved ones can help even if it seems like nothing else can. Their presence can buoy you as you move through these steps:

  • Plan the funeral. This task warrants its own checklist as there are many decisions and preparations to handle. You might already know the type of service and burial they wanted; if so, you can start the arrangements when you're ready. If not, think about what would have made them happy. You also might contact any military or other groups they were in; they may provide special services for funerals or offer some burial benefits.
  • Obtain a death certificate. This official document is issued by your local clerk, and your funeral home typically will assist you in obtaining it. This certificate is essential for laying loved ones to rest (most cemeteries and crematoriums won't bury or cremate without one). You'll also need this document to transfer property ownership, access certain benefits, settle estates and claim life insurance. Plan on getting 10-15 original copies.
  • Inform employers. If you work, connect with your supervisor or office administrators about taking bereavement leave (most policies allow for three to five days of paid leave). They should be able to help you arrange that and any additional time away that you feel you need, if possible. If your spouse was working, contact their employer, too.
  • Consider charities. Your spouse may have had a few organizations or charities near and dear to them. You may want to consider in lieu of flowers to send donations to these organizations. It's a meaningful way to honor the legacy and values of your loved one.
  • Write an obituary. You may want to share that your spouse has passed by publishing a notice or tribute that includes a bit about their life and details about any services. If it feels too hard to write, the funeral home staff may be able to help write something for you.
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Paperwork & administrative tasks

Once the necessary preparations are taken care of, it's time to tackle the paperwork and potential financial ripple effects associated with a spouse's death. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Assemble a financial team

If you don't already work with a financial advisor, it might be a good time to consider reaching out. They can provide guidance about possible next steps and suggest other financial professionals you might need to contact. For example, you might not need to meet with investment and tax professionals right away, though you will want to discuss your situation with them in the coming weeks. Having a savvy financial advisor in your corner can help reduce stress and ensure that nothing slips through the cracks during these challenging times.

Beyond your advisor and investment and tax professionals, you also may want to contact an accountant or estate attorney for assistance. They can help guide you as you gather necessary estate documents for review or for probate court. Each of these financial professionals can help you sort through assets, create a new family budget and review estate and tax strategies.

Review the will & estate plan

A will and estate plan lay out your spouse's wishes, including how and where any of the assets they owned or had a stake in should be distributed. A will also names an executor—the person in charge of distributing these assets—which may be you. If you are the will's executor, there are key documents and account information you should collect for your records should you need them, such as Social Security information and deeds or proof-of-ownership documentation (real estate, vehicles, etc.)
Having these items on hand may make sorting through your spouse's will and estate plan a bit easier.

Your spouse may not have had a will or any estate plans. In that case, you may decide to seek the counsel of an attorney to help you through the disposition of estate assets.

File for applicable benefits

Your financial team can help you identify any benefits you may qualify for. Some possibilities include:

  • Social Security survivor benefits. If your spouse contributed to Social Security during their lifetime, you might be entitled to 100% of your deceased spouse's basic benefit if you're 67 or a reduced benefit starting at age 60. However, if you collect survivor benefits, that will take away the ability to collect your own Social Security benefit. There's also a one-time lump-sum death payment of $255 that can be paid to a surviving spouse if they were living with the deceased.
  • Veterans Affairs survivors pension. Both you and your spouse must qualify for this benefit. Your yearly income and net worth must meet certain limits set by Congress. From December 1, 2021, to November 30, 2022, the net worth limit to be eligible for these benefits is $138,489.
  • Life insurance death benefits. It's common for one spouse to list the other as their beneficiary for their life insurance death benefit. If you are the beneficiary on your spouse’s life insurance policy, contact your insurance agent and provide a death certificate with your claim. Your insurance company will ask you how'd like the benefits distributed. Your financial team can help you select the best option for you.
  • Group life/health insurance. If you were a dependent on your spouse's life or health insurance, their workplace can put you in touch with someone in their HR or benefits department. They'll provide information on any outstanding paychecks or continuing benefits you may qualify for, such as a group life or health insurance policy.

Notify other organizations and policyholders

You'll want to contact your other policyholders and insurance carriers to terminate policies. Depending on your coverage, you may not need to cancel anything but rather transfer any joint accounts or policies to your name. Some examples include your home and auto insurance carriers, credit cards and memberships.

You also may want to pay off any outstanding credit cards and close any accounts solely in your spouse's name.

Make a charitable gift or donation

Many people have nonprofit organizations, charities or causes that they care about deeply—your spouse may have been one of them. Reflect on what mattered most to your spouse and consider making a donation in their honor. If this is something you'd like to explore, make a list of possible organizations to bring to your financial advisor. They may have a few suggestions on how to make the most of your gift.

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Review your own plans

As you slowly get your bearings on this new chapter of life, you may want to review your finances, retirement plans and estate strategies with a financial advisor. Mindful conversations about estate planning can provide you with a sense of confidence that you won't leave your loved ones with a mess of confusion and paperwork.

  • Review your current financial and retirement documents. Look over your financial, retirement and insurance contracts to ensure your account information and beneficiaries are accurate. It's also a good idea to make sure your loved ones have easy access to your accounts, whether that's login information or passcodes.
  • Write a will. A will can help you lay out where you'd like your assets to go after you pass. In addition, having a will in place can speed up the probate process for your loved ones. Additionally, you may want to lay out your wishes regarding a durable power of attorney or health care proxy who will help ensure you get the care you want if you become incapacitated. If you currently don't have a will, trust or other planning documents, talk to financial advisor and an estate planning attorney. And if you do, make sure to update those documents as appropriate. While Thrivent does not provide specific legal advice, we can partner with you and your attorney.
  • Discuss your funeral or memorial service. Even if you are vibrant and healthy, it's wise to discuss your wishes for when you pass. Explaining how you'd like your service to be, including special prayers or readings, can help your loved ones give you the memorial you want.
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Lean on others for comfort and guidance

Knowing what to do when a spouse dies may feel daunting, but connecting with loved ones, professionals and advisors of all kinds can help. Have the confidence to reach out when you need to. And take it in steps—trying to get everything figured out all at once can be overwhelming. Over time, as you cross off items on this death of a spouse checklist, you may even begin to feel a sense of certainty after such a destabilizing event.

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To help provide comfort and support, we provide condolence resources to clients to help begin the healing process.

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Thrivent and its financial advisors and professionals do not provide legal, accounting or tax advice. Consult your attorney or tax professional.

Thrivent financial advisors and professionals have general knowledge of the Social Security tenets. For complete details on your situation, contact the Social Security Administration.
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