When a spouse passes away, handling all the necessary details to settle his or her estate can be overwhelming. With legal issues added to making funeral arrangements and sharing the news of their death, knowing exactly what to do when a loved one passes away is not easy.

Don’t let the legal implications of a spouse’s death add to the stress of losing a partner. If you or someone you know has lost a spouse, or is expecting to, A People’s Choice is here to help.

Remaining organized and effective upon the death of a spouse is difficult. Use the following guide to ensure you’ve handled all the necessary legal actions:

When a Spouse Dies: Checklist

  • Arrange for organ donation.
  • Contact immediate family and friends.
  • Consider funeral preparations and inquire about special arrangements for a veteran.
  • Order several certified copies of the death certificate.
  • Secure all personal property belonging to your spouse.
  • Notify the local Social Security office.
  • Look into employment benefits.
  • Stop health insurance coverage
  • Notify life insurance companies and file life insurance claims.
  • Make a list of important bills and contact financial advisors to obtain beneficiary information.
  • Notify mortgage companies and banks.
  • Contact a tax preparer to discuss estate taxes.
  • Close credit card and other charge accounts that are only in your spouse’s name.
    • Take your spouse’s name off joint cards and accounts.
    • Notify credit reporting agencies to reduce the chance of identity theft.

What Not To Do When Your Spouse Dies

Following the death of a spouse, the pressure of settling personal, estate, and financial affairs can be very overwhelming. Sometimes this life-changing event can trigger irrational decisions on matters that should be revisited once the shock of grief has subsided.

A surviving spouse should hold off on the following tasks until they feel more at ease with the situation at hand:

  • Giving away a spouse’s possessions

Friends and family members can sometimes pressure widows and widowers to distribute or donate their loved one’s possessions too soon after death. However, it’s important to hold off until you can make clear-headed decisions about what is and isn’t important to keep.

  • Impulsively spending money

Making purchases will not lessen your pain or shorten grieving time. Remember that during this time, you may be especially vulnerable to pressure from salespeople.  Unfortunately, surviving spouses may be left with substantially less money to live on than before, so save major purchases for later.

  • Moving from your current home

Upon the death of a spouse, you may feel like leaving your current home to start anew, perhaps to live closer to your children or family. However, it’s best to make this decision based on thoughtful reason, not emotion. Wait to make this decision until you have had time to think out plans and, more importantly, have completed the grieving process.

  • Loaning or giving away money

Avoid loaning or gifting money to family or friends before you have a solid grasp on your present and future financial needs and obligations. This review may require consulting with a financial advisor or other professional.

One to Four Months Following Death

Mark your calendar one to four months following the death of your spouse to change legal documents for existing assets to your name alone.

Contact a legal professional to discuss probating your spouse’s estate including real estate holdings. If proper estate planning has not been done, you may need to file a spousal property petition to ensure that the community property is transferred solely to your name. You will also need to decide who you want to handle your estate upon your passing since your spouse will no longer be able to do so.

Additionally, if you and your spouse had a trust, you may need to address the death of a co-trustee and perform other trust administration duties.

Important Questions for When Your Spouse Dies

When a spouse dies, who gets social security, and how much?

Generally speaking, the amount of social security you will receive upon your spouse’s death depends on his or her average lifetime earnings. The higher the earnings, the higher their social security retirement benefits.

A surviving spouse will receive full benefits at full retirement age or reduced benefits as early as age 60. Additionally, you may begin receiving benefits as early as age 50 if you became disabled before or within seven years of your spouse’s death.

Benefits for a widow or widower may be affected by several other factors such eligibility for their own social security retirement benefits, or eligibility after remarrying.  For example, according to the Social Security Administration’s web site, “If a person receives benefits as a surviving spouse, they can later on switch to their own retirement benefit as early as age 62.” 

In many cases, a surviving spouse can begin receiving one benefit at a reduced rate and upon reaching full retirement age, can switch to the other benefit at an unreduced rate.

If you are a surviving spouse,  you should immediately schedule an appointment with your local Social Security office to determine your benefits eligibility and start the application process.

When my spouse dies will I get their pension?

There are two types of defined pension benefit plans: single life benefit and joint and survivor benefit.

Single life benefits consist of monthly payments based on your spouse’s lifetime. On the other hand, a joint and survivor benefit plan provides a monthly payment based on the surviving spouse’s lifetime.

You will receive your spouse’s pension if he or she chose the joint and survivor benefit option.

What happens if my spouse dies with debt?

If your spouse passed away and has outstanding debts, you may be liable for them. For example, if you shared the credit card debt under a joint credit card, you will be obligated to pay. However, even if your spouse opened a credit card in his or her own name, you may also still be liable for the debt.

California is a community property state, meaning you could end up responsible for your deceased spouse’s credit card debt regardless of whose name is on the bill. In fact, a creditor can actually sue a surviving spouse and get a judgment for debt.

Typically, the decedent’s assets will be used to pay any of his or her outstanding debts, but be careful! Credit card companies looking to collect outstanding debts will often attempt to collect money from any possible source. Plus, company representatives may say anything to make you feel obligated to pay the debt – even if you’re not legally required to do so.

If you find yourself asked to pay off a deceased spouse’s debt, contact A People’s Choice for help. Our compassionate staff has over 35 years of experience, and can help you handle any necessary legal paperwork to administer your spouse’s estate. Call us today at 800-747-2780.

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