8 Tips for a Surviving Spouse

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There ought to be a mourning period entitling you to peace, quiet, and a “get out of dieting free” card when your spouse dies. But there are some steps I’d recommend to protect yourself and your assets.

1. All local jurisdictions require that a will be filed and, in most cases, an executor or representative named so that creditors know whom to contact about outstanding debts.

2. You’ll have to notify anyone from whom your spouse was receiving monetary benefits—such as Social Security and Medicare as well as any pension, life-insurance, or annuity providers.

3. Notify the three major credit agencies—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—so no one scanning the obituaries can use your loved one’s identity to open a credit card or other account.

4. Call your spouse’s employer to find out about life insurance, pensions, or other retirement benefits. If your family was covered by your spouse’s health insurance, there may be a grace period during which you’ll still have coverage.

5. Update beneficiaries. Although decisions about who gets some things—such as a spouse’s stamp collection or his mother’s doilies—can wait, you may want to update your power of attorney and health directives to designate someone other than your spouse as the decision-maker if you’re incapacitated and to change beneficiaries on various accounts and insurance policies. You may want to add a child or close relative to the signatories on a safe-deposit box.

6. Make a list of all your accounts—before you need it. Many couples, like Benjamin and me, split household responsibilities, and only one handles finances. That’s fine as long as both parties know how to access all accounts, including the account numbers and passwords. DC attorney Sheldon Hochberg—who has helped family members who had no idea what they owned or owed after the death of a spouse—suggests making a list of all assets, liabilities, bank accounts, investments, insurance policies, and other legal documents. Make copies for your children or a close relative so everyone who needs to know can find the “keys to the kingdom.”

7. Get professional help. You’ll need an attorney to assist you in getting through probate—although you can do some of the legwork yourself, such as filing documents at the courthouse. You may also need an accountant to help you prepare an estate income-tax return.

8. Find your comfort zone. I’m okay with getting mail in my husband’s name from store credit cards, E-ZPass, and charities we never supported. I did change our joint e-mail signature, because it seemed strange for friends still to be getting messages from Benjamin.

This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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