First Steps to Take After a Spouse’s Death

Mother and adult daughter hug after spouse's deathEven when it’s expected, few events are more distressing than the death of a spouse. When the death comes without warning, you may feel paralyzed by shock as well as by grief. At the same time, you need to make arrangements and notify others and, a little bit down the road, tend to financial matters and probate. It can all seem overwhelming. Here’s a guide to get you through the practical details of the first days, weeks, and months after the loss of a spouse.

1. Contact a Support Person

You shouldn’t have to face this loss alone, and having a friend, adult child, or other family member at your side will make a world of difference. After you make this first call, your support person can help you get the word out to others who need to know, field calls, receive gifts of food brought by friends and neighbors, and help you with making funeral arrangements if your spouse did not pre-plan their funeral.

2. Make Funeral or Memorial Arrangements

Look for any documents that might indicate your spouse’s wishes for their funeral or memorial service, or any pre-planning they may have done. Contact a funeral director and/or your clergy person. If your spouse did not pre-plan their funeral, take a friend with you to the funeral home to make arrangements. Some funeral directors prey on the emotions of grieving loved ones to “upsell” more expensive and unnecessary goods and services. A friend can serve as a reality check.

3. Write an Obituary

Placing an obituary on the funeral home’s website and in local newspapers will communicate information about your spouse’s passing and any funeral arrangements. (Many people leave condolences as posted comments to the online obituary. If you are not computer-savvy, ask a friend to print these out for you so you won’t miss the words of comfort.)

The task of summing up a loved one’s life in a few paragraphs can seem daunting; if you have a friend or family member who is a skilled writer, ask if they will help you. Speaking of obituaries, since they necessarily mention the time and place of services, they also let thieves know when you’re likely to be out of your home. Try to find an acquaintance who’s willing to stay in the house during that time to discourage a robbery.

4. Get Death Certificates

You will need death certificates to close and transfer accounts, prove death to insurance companies, and more. Get more copies than you think you’ll need; while you can obtain more later, it can be a hassle. In Michigan, death certificates can be obtained from the State of Michigan Vital Records Office.

5. Go Through Papers and Digital Files

After the funeral is over and mourners have returned home, it’s time to begin tending to administrative details. Hopefully, you know where your spouse kept their important papers. You’re looking for an original of your spouse’s most recent will and any other estate planning documents, of course, but you should also gather:

  • Life insurance policies
  • Pension and retirement benefit information
  • Employee benefit information if your spouse was employed at death
  • Bank statements
  • Records of personal and business assets
  • Unpaid bills
  • Notes receivable or other evidence of debts owed to the deceased
  • Leases and contracts
  • Investment account statements

6. Contact Relevant Businesses and Agencies

Going through your loved one’s papers will give you some idea of the organizations you’ll need to contact. One of the first should be the Social Security Administration. They, and any other government organizations (such as the VA) that were providing benefits to your spouse, should be formally notified of the death within a month. You’ll also want to speak with the human resources department at your spouse’s company if they were employed at the time of death; there may be benefits due you. You may also want to cancel credit card accounts, but don’t pay credit card or other bills until you’ve met with a probate attorney.

7. Contact a Probate Attorney

If the attorney who prepared your spouse’s estate plan is still practicing, they will be an invaluable source of guidance regarding the actions you need to take after a spouse’s death. If that attorney is not available, or if your spouse didn’t have an estate plan, contact an experienced Michigan probate attorney for help. A great deal of the stress that comes with dealing with a late spouse’s affairs is because the situation is so unfamiliar. Not only has an attorney with a significant probate practice dealt with these issues many times, they have the objectivity you need when you’re overwhelmed with emotion. In fact, if you find yourself struggling with any of the steps in this list, call a probate attorney right away. You don’t need to figure anything out alone.