Tuesday, September 6, 2011

After a spouse dies: a checklist

Nobody wants to think about the prospect of losing a loved one, and when we do we often have no idea where to turn.

If you are not prepared, the onslaught of paperwork that will hit you after your spouse’s death may seem overwhelming. It is tough to get through it even when you are prepared. Here’s your to-do list:

Find out what you own. Gather copies of your joint tax records, retirement plan statements, all insurance policies, bank and brokerage accounts, and the deed to your house. Bundle the documents in one big file that you keep in a safe but accessible place, such as a locked drawer.

Order plenty of death certificates. You’ll probably need about two dozen copies of a death certificate to send to credit card companies, the company that holds the mortgage on your home, and insurers to verify his death.

Request benefits. Notify past employers and file for any benefits owed, such as pension income, life insurance, and health insurance coverage. Talk to the person in charge of employee benefits (the human resource department can direct you). You may need to talk to more than one employer for more than one plan. Find out about settlement options. Some plans ask you to choose between a lump-sum payment or an annuity, which can be made every month or year.

File for life and other insurance. Alert your life insurance company and file a claim. Your insurance agent should have all the policy information you will need and be able to help you obtain the necessary forms.

Notify government agencies. The Social Security Administration will need to be notified. You must have been married for at least nine months before your spouse’s death to be eligible for benefits, unless his death was the result of an accident or military service. Also, you should contact the motor vehicles bureau in your state to change car registrations to your name.

Contact banks, brokerage, and investment firms. Any joint accounts should be transferred to an account in your name. (You will need a copy of the death certificate to do so.) In many cases, you could be able to renegotiate the terms of any outstanding loans with your banker. If your spouse had a brokerage account, ask the broker to give you a value on the date of death. Estate taxes – if any – will be based on the valuation of assets in all accounts.

Review all insurance policies. Also update any life or disability insurance policies. If your spouse worked for a company that has a health plan covering 20 or more employees, the plan may continue to offer you and any dependents coverage for up to three years.

Invest wisely. This is not the time to be taking hot stock tips. Most financial planners recommend that you refrain from investing any lump-sum insurance or pension payout for at least six months, and ideally a year, after your spouse’s death. Stash any cash into liquid money market funds, or short-term certificates of deposit or Treasury bills.

Take your time. After you have negotiated through the must-do list and found the crucial documents, take a break. Don’t be pressured to make big financial decisions. When you are ready to take action, it’s a good idea to set up an appointment with a financial advisor to help you develop a short-term and long-term investment plan.

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