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What Are The First Steps To Take During Widowhood

Whether you are a recent widow, or you are helping your mom or a friend that is going through widowhood, know that you are not alone.  While there are many things that can and should be done, there are professionals to assist and a number of resources available. More than anything, it is important to lean on friends and family to help.  In some cases, your professional network can assist with some of the more labor-intensive and specialized duties.  

First Week

  • Be with others.   The most important thing is to obviously surround yourself with loving friends and family.  Friends and family can lend both emotional support as well as practical support from small tasks to larger tasks.
  • Report the death.  If you are at a hospital or health facility, they will know what to do. If not, contact your preferred funeral home, and they will walk you through the steps. In some cases, law enforcement should be called to notify them of the death.  
  • Arrange for organ donation.  Check the driver’s license and the living will, if applicable, to determine the deceased’s wishes. This step should be done almost immediately after death to preserve the organs to help perpetuate other lives.
  • Obtain copies of the death certificate. States vary, but this is generally issued by a government body. The funeral director will help you obtain this document. You will need this to handle many tasks related to the death, including various financial transactions.  While the amount will vary, it is generally recommended that you obtain at least 10 copies.
  • Call friends and family to notify them of the news.  Dividing up responsibilities among various people to help call will be helpful to all concerned.
  • Call your employer, if working, to notify them and to work out work arrangements.
  • Write and distribute death notice. Call the local paper and/or an online site to communicate the death to a wider audience.
  • Make the funeral arrangements.  If this was not pre-planned, there are many items to take care of, but there are lots of resources and professionals that know exactly what to do. Your local funeral director or cremation service personnel will walk you through the options and necessary steps.  These steps may include meeting with the officials of the chosen cemetery to choose the plot, planning the transportation of the deceased, and planning for any of the pre- or post-funeral service events.  Note that if the deceased was a veteran, you should contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • Determine who to help with the funeral. In addition to the funeral director, you will need to select people to fill various roles, including the officiant/pastor, eulogists, pallbearers, scripture reader(s), and singers/musicians.
  • Provide notice about the timing and location of the funeral.
  • Meet with your pastor.  If faith is a part of your life, you will likely look want to meet with your pastor. Your pastor will be able to answer questions and provide comfort.
  • Before the funeral, for the funeral. Determine what to wear, and ask for help from others to have the garment dry cleaned, if needed.  Determine what personal items you want to take for the funeral service, e.g., photos. On the day of the funeral, ensure your house is secure.
  • Keep track of those who sent cards, flowers, wishes.

Handling Financial Matters

  • Information gathering and claims processing.  
  • Call the Social Security office.  Call 1-800-772-1213 or contact your local Social Security office to report the death.  Certain benefits may need to stop or new benefits may need to begin, depending on the nature of the survivors.
  • Stop certain payments. Health insurance, disability insurance, and other insurance where the deceased was the responsible party should be contacted. In most cases, payments will be discontinued or transferred to another party.
  • Notify the life insurance company where the deceased was the insured. Forms will need to be completed and a death certificate will have to be submitted to start the claims process.
  • Contact the employer. If the deceased was working, the employer can walk you through the benefits that are available and the steps that need to be taken.
  • If needed, retrieve any information in the safe deposit box. If you don’t have access, follow local probate rules to obtain access to the safe deposit box.
  • Begin to make a list of all of the financial assets, including joint property.
  • Make a list of beneficiaries of the various accounts. You will need to contact the financial institution to get this information in writing.
  • Make a list of the debts and the contact information of the lenders.
  • Obtain a copy of the will and other estate planning documents (e.g., trusts).  You may want to have a copy of this document made.
  • Meet with the executor.  If you are not the executor, meet with the executor to ensure the appropriate steps are taking place. The executor is ultimately responsible to ensure probate is followed, as needed.
  • Meet with an estate planning attorney and administer the estate.  The executor will likely need to meet with an attorney that specializes in probate.
  • Close credit cards and notify credit reporting agencies. It will be important to close the credit cards to ensure no charges are made inappropriately.  Get a record of the closing of the account from the credit card company and notify the executor and/or attorney about the amount of the debt.  Notify all three credit agencies (Equifax, Experian, Transunion) of the death.
  • Call the local DMV to cancel the deceased driver’s license.
  • At the appropriate time, cancel email and website accounts.
  • Cancel membership in certain organizations.
  • Review year-end tax planning and consider important tax planning strategies to implement. Work with your CPA or tax-focused financial planner.

Long-Term Finances

  • Write down your living expenses and review how these are paid and confirm the type of payment for these expenses (e.g., what account, check, automatic).
  • Ensure you have liquid assets or other sources to meet your short-term expenses.
  • Create a net worth statement.  
  • Create your annual budget.
  • Prepare financial projections to help with both your overall retirement and cash flow planning. Determine what a comfortable level of spending amount may be, taking into account a wide range of financial details.
  • Review the asset allocation of your investments and take action, where needed.  Continue to monitor and tie to your overall financial situation.
  • Review shorter-term and long-term tax strategies; consider the impact of likely being in a higher income tax bracket.
  • Obtain an assessment of the condition of your home and determine the need to replace certain appliances or structures; plan and budget appropriately.
  • Evaluate your desired living conditions – move or stay?
  • Review your own estate plan and determine what adjustments may be needed.
  • Consider short-term and long-term life planning goals. Consider the potential impact on your finances and discuss with your financial advisor whether such goals are realistic.
While there are more issues than we listed here and while the task can seem daunting, know that others have travelled this journey. It is important to note that your journey is unique to you, and that no checklist or standard timeline will be the exact right fit for you.  With the myriad of issues on the horizon, it is important to take your time, stay organized, and be willing to get the right type of support when and where needed.  Working with someone you can trust from an ethical and competency standpoint is paramount so it pays to evaluate your options and consider whether a fiduciary advisor is right for you.