The death of a spouse is one of the most devastating events of a person’s life. As a recent widow or widower, you will face many personal and financial challenges.  Here are some tips.

Grieve. One of the most important new findings has shown that for most of us, grief is a severe — but self-limiting — condition, not a permanent state

Build a Team.  Put together an appropriate team of trusted professionals.  The group should include:

  • Probate attorney – to review your spouse’s estate and to provide you with sound legal advice.
  • A funeral director and funeral home – Choose a funeral home with which you feel comfortable.  The funeral home should help you obtain copies of the death certificate, as well as applications for Social Security and veterans benefits.
  • Your financial adviser or accountant – to help with the overall organization of your finances.

Meet with a competent probate attorney.  It is important to review your spouse’s estate and to receive sound legal advice.  Some initial questions that must be asked are: Is there a need to administer the estate?  Is there a need to create a new estate plan?

Gather and review information. Get a few of your spouse’s death certificate. Most financial institutions require a death certificate to close an account or to change ownership of investments. You’ll need to gather company benefits booklets, car titles, deeds, mortgage balance, and current statements for bank, brokerage and retirement accounts.

  • Is there a Will? Trust?
  • Make a list of assets.  Identify assets held in the decedent’s joint name, individual name, pay on death contracts (retirement benefits) and assets with named beneficiaries (life insurance).
  • Make a list of all debts.

Apply for Social Security Benefits. Apply for social security survivor benefits for yourself or your children.  Contact the social security administration or call (800) 772-1213. If your spouse ever served in the military or in some other form of government employment, you and your children may qualify for a separate survivor’s benefit. The Department of Veterans Affairs, formerly known as the Veterans Administration, may even provide educational assistance, home loans, federal job preference, or other assistance. If you are the widow or widower of a former federal, state, or local government worker, contact the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS) or the local organization that coordinates benefits for state, county, or municipal employees.

To claim survivor’s benefits, your spouse must have accumulated enough work credits –forty credits (10 years of work) are all that is needed. However, under a special rule, if your spouse had only 6 credits in the 13 quarters prior to his or her death, you and your children can still receive benefits. You are eligible for survivor’s benefits if you are:

  • A spouse, age 60 or older (50 or older if you are disabled)
  • A spouse, caring for a child who is under age 16 or disabled
  • An ex-spouse, age 60 or older (50 or older if disabled), and were married to the deceased for at least 10 years
  • An ex-spouse of any age, if you are caring for your child who is under age 16 or disabled
  • An unmarried child under 18
  • An unmarried child under 19, and attending school full time (up to grade 12)
  • Dependent parents age 62 or older