What to Do When a Spouse Dies

Losing a spouse can be an incredibly difficult time. Unfortunately, while coping with your grief, you might also find yourself having to handle your spouse’s final arrangements and settle his or her estate. It can seem overwhelming. So having a checklist to guide you through the process can help.

Here are steps to take when a loved one dies.

Get a pronouncement of death

If your spouse dies in a hospital, hospice facility or nursing home, the staff will handle getting an official pronouncement of death that certifies the cause, time and place of death. This will be needed for a death certificate. If your loved one dies at home, call 911 to have your spouse transported to a hospital where a doctor can make a pronouncement. After your loved one is pronounced dead, you can make arrangements for him or her to be transported to a funeral home. 

Contact your spouse’s friends and family

Let those who were close to your spouse know about his or her death. You might want to enlist another family member to make these calls for you. In addition to friends and family, you might also need to contact the following:

  • Employer (if applicable)
  • Your spouse’s doctor
  • Caregivers or anyone who helped your spouse
  • Your spouse’s place of worship
  • Community or social groups with which your spouse was involved
  • Local newspaper to place an obituary

Make funeral and burial plans

Hopefully, your spouse told you what sort of funeral and burial he or she wanted. If not, look for written instructions that might be stored with your spouse's legal documents in a desk, home safe or safe deposit box. You also could check if your spouse’s attorney was left with instructions. And you could call local funeral homes to see if your spouse prepaid for funeral arrangements.

If your spouse was in the military, contact the Department of Veterans Affairs to find out if your spouse qualifies for veterans burial benefits.

Get copies of the death certificate

The funeral director should be able to help you get certified copies of your spouse’s death certificate. You’ll need several to provide to the insurance company for life insurance benefits, to your spouse’s financial institutions, to the court for the probate process and for any other financial or legal transactions you might have to handle. 

Locate life insurance policies

Check your spouse’s desk, files, home safe or safe deposit box for any life insurance policies your spouse might have had. Bank statements also might reveal whether your spouse was paying premiums on a policy. You’ll need to file a claim and submit a copy of the death certificate to claim death benefits for yourself and any other beneficiaries named on the policy. The payout could come in handy if you need cash to cover funeral costs.

Locate the will and start the probate process

If your spouse had a will, it will spell out who gets what and will name an executor to oversee distribution of assets. You will need to file the will with the probate court to begin probate, the legal process of distributing assets after death.

If your spouse died without a will, the court will decide how assets are distributed based on state laws. Either way, if you will be handling your spouse’s estate, you need to get what are called letters of administration (or representation or testamentary) from the probate court to access any financial accounts that you weren’t a joint owner of with your spouse. (You’ll be allowed to access joint accounts without going through the probate process).

If your spouse had a trust, you won’t have to go through probate. Contact your spouse’s attorney to discuss what steps to take.

Take inventory of assets and financial accounts

If you are the executor of your spouse’s estate, you’ll likely need to take inventory of your spouse’s assets for the probate process. Check your spouse’s mail for account statements and search the house for deeds, property titles, business agreements and tax returns. If your spouse had a financial advisor or accountant, that professional will likely know what assets your spouse had.

You can access funds in accounts for which you are a joint account holder. And if you were named the beneficiary on your spouse’s retirement account, contact the company that administers the account to find out what steps you need to take to transfer the funds. However, you won’t be able to access funds from accounts or transfer property in your spouse’s name only until granted access by the probate court.

Notify government agencies

If your spouse was receiving Social Security benefits, report the death to the Social Security Administration to stop benefit payments by calling 1-800-772-1213. However, you might not need to take this step if the funeral home alerts the Social Security Administration, which is common.

Notify Medicare or Medicaid if your spouse was receiving either of those health coverage benefits. Reach out to any other government agencies that were providing benefits to your spouse. Contact the Department of Motor Vehicles to cancel your spouse’s driver’s license.

Notify financial institutions

Let your spouse’s bank, pension provider, credit card companies, loan providers and any other financial institutions know about your spouse’s death. Also contact the credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion – to place a death notice on your spouse’s credit reports. 

Make a list of bills and cancel unnecessary services

Collect your spouse’s mail and check the bank account or bank statements to see what bills are regularly paid. You might need to transfer some of the services such as electricity, gas and water to your name if they were being paid by your spouse. However, you might be able to quickly cancel the following services:

Also deactivate your spouset’s email and social media accounts to prevent identity theft. Some social media sites such as Facebook allow an account to be memorialized so that friends and family can share memories about the person who has died. 

File a final tax return

You’ll have to file a tax return for your spouse – and pay any taxes that are owed. IRS Publication 559 has details on filing a return on behalf of someone who has died.

Consider hiring an accountant if your spouse didn’t already have one to help prepare the return and assist with tax matters related to settling your spouse’s estate. You also might need to hire an attorney to guide you through the probate process. Just remember that it’s OK to get help. You don’t have to go through this alone.

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