Facing Legal Matters After The Death of a Spouse

Article written by John C. Newman, Esq.
Posted on Dec 31, 2011

Facing legal matters after the death of a spouse is one of the more daunting and emotionally draining tasks a surviving spouse is required to address. During a time of mourning, a surviving spouse is expected to answer repeated requests for documentation from various creditors, government agencies, and financial institutions. Not only are these requests usually presented during an inopportune time for the surviving spouse, but they serve as a constant reminder of the loss of one’s spouse.

In order to alleviate the confusion and emotional stress that occurs after the death of a spouse, we provide the following calendar checklist as a reference for a survivor.

Week One:
During this week we suggest you focus on the funeral details and your family and friends. In addition, we suggest you perform the following administrative tasks:

Order at least 10 copies of your spouse’s death certificates;Locate and secure the original or a copy of your spouse’s Will and/or Trust(s) which he/she executed;Notify all of the life insurance companies that held policies on your spouse and request claim forms and instructions for completing the forms;Notify your spouse’s employer to see if there are any benefits owed to you;Contact your nearest Social Security Administration Office to determine what benefits are available for you and your children;Notice of death to Social Security is made through a toll-free line (1-800-772-1213);Contact the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (1-800-375-5283) if your spouse was not a U.S. citizen; andIf it is likely that your spouse’s estate will have to file an estate tax return, consult with your attorney to determine whether disclaimers by you or other beneficiaries are recommended before you touch any of the decedent’s assets.

Week Two:
During this week we suggest you come into our office to assess with you whether a probate estate will need to be opened. If a probate estate needs to be opened, then we will work with you to prepare for the administration of your spouse’s estate. If your spouse had a fully funded trust, we will work with you to prepare for the administration of the trust. Make sure to bring copies of insurance policies, real estate deeds, personal property titles (like an RV or automobile), stock and bond certificates or statements of investment accounts, checking and saving account statements, and employee benefit statements. In addition, we suggest you perform the following administrative tasks:

Open a checking account in your name if you do not already have one;Contact the personnel office or the Casualty Assistance Office if your spouse was on active duty or retired from the military;Contact the Department of Veterans Affairs (1-800-827-1000) if your spouse was a veteran to see what benefits are available to you and your children;Contact the Office of Personnel Management (1-888-767-6738) if your spouse was a retired or former federal civil service employee; andContact the three national credit reporting agencies. Notify them of your spouse’s death and request a credit report to see if your spouse has any unknown creditors. The agencies can be contacted at:Experian, 1-888-397-3742 Equifax, 1-800-525-6285 TransUnion, 1-800-680-7289.

Week Three:
Depending on your financial situation, we suggest you consult with a financial advisor to assess your financial needs if you expect to receive a large sum of money from your spouse’s insurance benefits or if you need assistance in financial planning in light of no longer receiving your spouse’s income. If you are a trustee of your spouse’s trust, we suggest you contact your spouse’s medical insurance company to determine what portion of your spouse’s remaining medical bills have yet to be processed. Once all medical claims are processed, the trust may need to pay any outstanding balances of the medical bills.

Week Four: By now your spouse’s estate will most likely be opened (if needed) or your spouse’s trust will become actively administered. If you are our client, you will be consulting with us on an ongoing basis regarding either your spouse’s estate or the administration of his/her trust. In addition to consulting with us, we suggest you begin to re-evaluate your estate plan. Accordingly, we suggest you perform the following administrative tasks:

Change the “pay on death” beneficiary on your employee benefit plans, life insurance policies, bank accounts, investment accounts, and other financial accounts if your spouse was named as the beneficiary and there is no secondary beneficiary named;Re-evaluate your own life and health insurance needs;If your spouse owned a business, begin to determine what post-mortem decisions or planning need to be made regarding the business; and Request that we prepare an estate plan for you or revise your existing estate plan (e.g. change your agent under a Durable Power of Attorney or Health Care Power of Attorney, your Executor, or Trustee).In addition to re-evaluating your estate plan, we suggest you continue to perform the following administrative tasks:Check with your home and auto insurance companies to determine if the polices need to be re-titled to you or the estate of your spouse, depending on the current ownership of your spouse’s home and automobile;Change the account names on your credit cards or apply for your own cards if you did not have any prior to your spouse’s death;Notify lenders for loans that were extended to your spouse individually;Change the billing name for your utility providers if necessary; and Change the subscription names and notify clubs, including college and alumni associations and other nonprofit organizations, of your spouse’s death. Inform the organizations of your interest in maintaining or terminating a membership or subscription.

After the First Month: After the first month, we suggest you complete any of the above mentioned tasks not already completed. We will continue to work with you to revise your estate plan, administer your spouse’s estate or trust(s), and assist you following the period of transition.

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