Estate Planning

Financial Checklist After the Death of a Spouse

By Chris Duderstadt

April 18, 2024

Financial Checklist After the Death of a Spouse

Key Points – Financial Checklist After the Death of a Spouse

  • Reasons You’ll Need a Death Certificate for Your Spouse
  • Did Your Spouse Have an Estate Plan?
  • Social Security Benefits for a Surviving Spouse
  • Having a Good Support System (Both from Friends/Family and a Financial Planning Team)
  • 7 Minutes to Read | 23 Minutes to Watch

A Financial Checklist of Things to Do After the Death of a Spouse

No one wants to prepare for the death of a spouse. The grief associated with that is already too much for the surviving spouse and the rest of their family to handle. However, there are several key checklist items that need to be addressed following the death of a spouse.

Focusing on your own wellbeing and spreading the word to your family and close friends are obviously the first items to address. But even remembering who all to call among your loved ones can feel like a daunting checklist item after the death of a spouse. That’s why we’ve composed a checklist of other items that you need to keep in mind following the death of a spouse to hopefully reduce financial stress during a difficult time.

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1. Obtain Copies of the Death Certificate

This isn’t necessarily a financial checklist item by itself, but you’ll need to obtain about five or six copies of your spouse’s death certificate.1 Make sure to contact the vital records office of the state where your spouse died here.2 They’ll be able to let you how to obtain your spouse’s death certificate—in person, electronically, or via mail.

You’ll need a copy of the death certificate for some of the other items on this death of a spouse checklist, including the following:

  • When you contact the Social Security Administration
  • Claiming your spouse’s pension or life insurance
  • Certain actions with your spouse’s bank account

2. Find Your Spouse’s Will or Trust

The financial checklist following the death of a spouse can get a lot longer if your spouse didn’t have an estate plan. That’s why we try to meet with clients every other year and following major life events to make sure that you and your spouse’s estate plans are up to date. It’s advisable for your estate plan to include the following five documents, at a minimum.

  • Last Will and Testament
  • Revocable Living Trust
  • Beneficiary Designations
  • Advance Healthcare Directive: Living Will and Medical Power of Attorney
  • Financial Power of Attorney

Avoiding Probate

A will has its pros and cons. Having a will allows you to determine who you want to distribute your assets (both tangible and intangible) after you pass away to your beneficiaries. However, there’s a reason why the list of documents above doesn’t end after last will and testament. Only having a will guarantees that your estate will go through probate. That can turn into a long and costly process that’s full of family in-fighting. We’re guessing that you and your spouse don’t want that after either of you pass away.

To avoid probate, you need a revocable living trust. Having a trust in place adds a substantial level of control that a will-based plan doesn’t offer. Just make sure that if you have a trust-based plan that you’ve properly titled all non-beneficiary assets into the trust as well and properly titled all beneficiary assets that are in the trust.

By the time your spouse dies (or becomes incapacitated and can’t make decisions on their own), it will obviously be too late to make any changes to their estate plan. Hopefully, you were already aware of their final wishes before finding their will or trust after their death. To learn more about the nuances of wills, trusts, and estate planning as a whole, download our Estate Planning Guide below.

Estate Planning Guide

3. Call the Social Security Administration

Reporting the death of a spouse to the Social Security Administration isn’t a checklist item that can be completed online. You need to either call 1-800-772-1213 or visit your local Social Security office.3

Lump Sum Death Benefit

If you need to report your spouse’s death, did you know that you may be eligible to apply for a $255 lump sum death benefit from the Social Security Administration?4 If you’re a surviving spouse and were living in the same home as your spouse when they died, you’ll be eligible for it. There are also two ways to receive the lump sum death benefit even if you weren’t living with your spouse when they died. One way is if you became eligible for benefits after your spouse died. The other way is if you were already receiving benefits on your spouse’s benefit.

Survivor’s Benefit

With being a surviving spouse, it’s critical to understand how to earn the Social Security survivor’s benefits. A maximum of four credits can be earned per year.5 For 2024, a surviving spouse can accrue one credit per $1,730 of wages/self-employment income. That amounts to $6,920 for the year after earning four credits.

Maximizing Social Security Benefits for You and Your Spouse

It’s important realize that if you and your spouse were both claiming Social Security benefits upon your spouse’s death that you’ll only be able to keep the larger of the two benefits. That’s a big reason why the timing of when a couple claims Social Security is so important.

Let’s say that you and your spouse decided to start claiming your benefits at age 62 when first eligible. Yes, you get the benefits earlier. It’s critical to try to play the long game with claiming Social Security, though. That’s because the longer you wait to claim your benefit, the larger it will be once you claim it (and therefore the larger the benefit will be for the surviving spouse).

The Taxation Component of Social Security

One big takeaway with determining a Social Security claiming strategy for you and your spouse is that everyone’s situation is different. Just because your neighbors claim their benefits at certain ages doesn’t mean that you and your spouse should do the same.

It’s highly advisable to work with a team of wealth management professionals that can help you determine how to maximize the benefits for you and your spouse. Keep in mind that when a spouse passes away that the surviving spouse becomes a single tax filer. And that while Social Security by itself is a tax-free resource, up to 50% or 85% of your benefits can become taxable after reaching certain income thresholds. Since there are various elements of taxation related to Social Security, it’s important to have a CFP® Professional and CPA working together for you on your wealth management team.

4. Inform Your Spouse’s Current (If Applicable) and Former Employers

Whether your spouse was still working or retired when they died, you need to contact their past and present employers about a few different things. First and foremost, you’ll need to need to notify them of your spouse’s death. You’ll also need to inquire about potential death benefits for you as the surviving spouse and other beneficiaries.

An HR representative(s) of your spouse’s past/present employers should also be able to walk through any questions related to your spouse’s 401(k), pension(s), or other retirement plans. If your spouse didn’t designate any beneficiaries, you’ll automatically inherit their 401(k) as the surviving spouse.

If you (and/or your children) had coverage under your spouse’s health insurance, make sure to inquire with the HR rep(s) about continuing coverage. This also leads us right into No. 5 and No. 6 on our financial checklist following the death of a spouse.

5. Inform Your Employer

Don’t forget to let your employer know about your spouse’s death as well. The death of a spouse is considered to be a life event, which could impact decisions regarding your benefits. You’ll need to update the beneficiaries on your 401(k), assuming that your spouse was the beneficiary.

6. Reach Out to Insurance Companies

Along with talking to HR, you’ll want to reach out to the health insurance carrier as well. Also, be sure to make claims on your spouse’s life insurance policies. For any insurance companies that you need to contact, ask them for digital and/or hard copies of the claim forms. The earlier you file claims, the earlier you could receive benefits.

7. Updating Titles on Accounts

For any accounts that were solely in your spouse’s name, you can either put the account in your name or close the account. Specifically, surviving spouses should consider changing the titles on their spouse’s IRAs, depending on the age of each spouse. There will likely be new beneficiaries that need to be named on 401(k)s and IRAs of the deceased and surviving spouse.

8. Updating Property Titles

You’ll also need to update all property titles that include your spouse’s name. This will likely require contacting your county’s recorder’s office. There typically isn’t a rush to update property titles that list you and your spouse. But if your spouse was the sole property owner, make sure to contact an estate attorney.

9. Contact the Three Major Credit Bureaus

Reach out to Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian and notify them of your spouse’s death. Those are the three major credit bureaus that you’ll need to obtain a copy of your spouse’s credit reports from. By notifying them, they can specify in the credit report that your spouse is deceased so that future credit isn’t issued to your spouse.

10. Meet with a Financial Planning Team

As you can see from these first nine steps on the financial checklist following death of a spouse, there’s a lot of things to address during what is likely a very stressful time. Along with having support from your friends and other family members, it’s critical to work with a financial planning team.

We touched on it a little bit in checklist item No. 3, but you’ll need to be in touch with a tax professional following the death of your spouse. Your spouse’s taxes need to be filed and paid in the year that they pass away.

Having a Personalized Estate Plan as a Part of Your Overall Financial Plan

Working with an estate planning specialist following the death of your spouse can also take some stress off your shoulders. However, they can only do so much if you haven’t put this death of a spouse checklist ahead of time and incorporated an estate plan as a part of your overall financial plan.

Your financial plan needs to be personalized to meet your specific needs, wants, and wishes. And those wishes don’t just pertain to while you’re living. That’s why you need an estate plan in place so that your family is clear about you and your spouse’s wishes.

There are some other checklist items following a death of a spouse that didn’t quite crack our top 10 that could still be very important to you as a surviving spouse. For example, if your spouse was a veteran, you’ll need to contact the Veterans Administration to see if you’re eligible for veterans benefits.6 We can’t stress enough that everyone’s plan is unique.

Have Any Questions About Our Death of a Spouse Checklist?

If you have any questions about these death of a spouse checklist items and/or about designing an estate plan that’s a part of your overall financial plan, start a conversation with our team below.

Schedule a Meeting

At Modern Wealth, we have CFP® Professionals, CPAs, CFAs, estate planning specialists, and insurance specialists who all work together for our clients. We want to make sure that you have confidence that you’re doing the right things with your money, freedom from financial stress, and time to spend doing the things you love.

Financial Checklist After the Death of a Spouse: Watch Guide 

00:00 – Introduction
01:56 – A Story on the Unexpected
04:28 – The Financial Checklist Following the Death of a Spouse
08:00 – Rules for Retirement Accounts
11:14 – Tax Implications of Losing a Partner
– Health Care and Insurance
– Reviewing the List
20:45 – What We Learned Today


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