At some point, your spouse may die, or someone you know will become a surviving spouse.

We don’t like to think about it, but it’s part of life.

This life-changing event is flooded with emotions. And yet, you will be responsible for making easy and complex financial decisions.

Where do you start, and what do you do?

Here are ten items to address immediately:

1- Develop a team of qualified experts

During this time of grief, it’s essential to surround yourself with qualified experts. While family and friends may have good intentions, they may not know all laws and regulations.

Also, their frame of reference may be completely different from your situation. For this reason, rely on experienced and qualified professionals.  

Build your go-to team to include an estate planning attorney, CPA or Enrolled Agent, and Certified Financial Planner™.

2- Gather necessary documents

Shift into administrative mode and gather estate documents and life insurance policies.

If you’re the executor of the estate, request multiple copies of the death certificate and letters of testamentary. You’ll need these documents when you access financial and other accounts.

3- List assets and liabilities

Keep a master list of all assets and liabilities, including their value and how they are titled.

Assets include personal property, financial accounts, real estate, vehicles, stock options, business interests, cash value of life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and any other item with a value.

Liabilities include mortgages, home equity lines of credit, credit card debt, vehicle loans, back taxes, and any other type of loan.

Work with your team of qualified experts to create this list.

4- Notify financial institutions

For all financial accounts (checking, savings, money market, brokerage), notify the financial institution of your spouse passing away.

Your Certified Financial Planner™ and CPA/Enrolled Agent can help you with this task.

5- Transfer retirement accounts into your name

For retirement accounts (IRAs, employer-sponsored retirement savings plans), transfer them into your name.

If Required Minimum Distributions (“RMD”) were taken, work with your Certified Financial Planner™ and CPA/Enrolled Agent to understand your options.

6- Contact Social Security Administration

Contact your local Social Security Administration office to discuss your options if your spouse received Social Security benefits.

If you have minor children, contact the Social Security Administration to find out about survivor benefits.

If you need more income, find out your options if you take your Social Security benefits early.

7- Check your health insurance

If your spouse carried health insurance for you, you’ll need to find out your options as a surviving spouse.

These changes may impact how much you pay for premiums, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenses.

Check your medical, dental, vision, and long-term care insurance policies.

8- File tax returns

Work with your CPA or Enrolled Agent to file a final tax return and an estate tax return.

9- Plan for your new life

Work with your Certified Financial Planner™ to develop a spending plan for your new lifestyle.

They will help you identify which expenses will remain and which will be different. For example, your healthcare premiums may change.

Depending on your financial situation, you may need to reduce expenses or find a way to generate additional income.

10-  Postpone MAJOR financial decisions

Of course, day-to-day expenses need to be paid and addressed. However, major financial decisions such as selling assets, paying off liabilities, changing investments, etc., don’t have to be made immediately.

Wait at least six months before making these major financial decisions. If anyone is pressuring you to take action immediately, they may not have your best interest.

If someone will receive money because of your actions, be cautious. Look out for those who will receive a commission from an immediate sale or even family members who will receive a larger inheritance if you downsize now.

For these major financial decisions, rely on your team of experts – you’ll receive advice from different perspectives in order to make your own decision.

When a spouse dies, there is so much grief to deal with that it’s difficult to think clearly.

Some couples have discussed and planned ahead to relieve the surviving spouse from making difficult decisions, especially financial ones.

However, many avoid the topic or don’t think about an unexpected incident.

If you are a surviving spouse or know of someone who is, please share this list – especially the last one about postponing major decisions for at least six months.

(Update to original post from September 12, 2017)


Niv Persaud, CFP®, CDFA®, RICP®, is a Managing Director at Transition Planning & Guidance, LLC. Life is more than money. It’s about living the lifestyle you want and can afford. For that reason, Niv consults with clients on money, life, and work. Her approach capitalizes on techniques she learned throughout her career, including as a management consultant, executive recruiter, and financial advisor. Her services include developing  comprehensive financial plans, divorce financial reviews, and retirement plans. Niv actively gives back to her community through her volunteer efforts. She believes in living life to the fullest by cherishing friendships, enjoying the beauty of nature and laughing often — even at herself. Her favorite quote is by Erma Bombeck, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say ‘I used everything you gave me.’”