How to Deal With Joint Finances After Your Spouse's Death

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The death of a spouse is an emotionally traumatic experience, most likely encompassed by grief. And while focusing on self-care is essential during this difficult time, it's also important to turn your attention to financial matters. 

Learn some of the steps you should take, as well as the resources available to you. Doing so will help you not only manage your money better, but also more easily cope with one of life's most stressful experiences

Deal With Your Grief

Following the loss of a loved one, it’s essential to give yourself time to process the grief. The various tasks you may feel you need to deal with could seem overwhelming, so remember to pause and let yourself go through it. To better manage grief, the National Institute on Aging recommends:

  • Attending grief counseling or a support group for people who have lost spouses
  • Delaying major life decisions, such as leaving your home or job, until you have given yourself time to mourn
  • Maintaining regular visits with your health care provider
  • Relying on your support system, including children, friends, and members of your community
  • Consciously practicing self-care by making sure you are eating right, getting sufficient sleep, and avoiding excessive alcohol use
  • Taking steps to stay active, such as joining an exercise class

Remember that everyone grieves differently. It is an individual experience, and there is no wrong way to mourn the loss of your partner. 

Keep Good Records

Coping with the aftermath of a death is easier if you are prepared in advance for it. 

If possible, both spouses should remain involved in managing their joint finances during their lifetimes. If both partners are aware of where their money goes, figuring out financial matters in the case of a loss will be a lot more manageable. It's also easier to manage money after a death if you and your spouse keep detailed records related to financial issues during your life. 

If you have the chance, keep all important financial documents in one place. In addition to personal records—birth certificates, employer information, and education records, to name a few—the National Institute on Aging recommends gathering the following:

  • Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid information
  • Sources of income and assets, such as pension or 401(k)s
  • Insurance policies with agent information
  • Names of your banks, all account numbers, and credit and debit cards
  • A copy of your most recent tax return
  • Details about bills, including your mortgage, property taxes, and debts
  • Investment accounts including a Payable of Death (POD) arrangement
  • A car title and registration
  • The deed to your home
  • Information about a safe deposit box (and the key for it), if you have one
  • Advanced directives, such as a living will and a health care power of attorney, used to determine what medical care you'd receive in the event of incapacity
  • Your most up-to-date will and testament 

If all of these documents are accessible in one location, the surviving spouse can easily find all of the information they need to respond swiftly after a partner's death.

You can obtain advance medical directives from attorneys, health care providers, state health departments, or your local Area Agency on Aging

Documents You May Need to Have

After a death has occurred, it's important for the surviving spouse to obtain a death certificate. Many banks and financial institutions will require this in order to provide survivor benefits or change the names on joint accounts. 

You will also need to assemble the records mentioned above, which, again, should ideally be located all in one place. These documents will be crucial to making sure the deceased's bills are paid, all of the assets are transferred to new owners, and all death benefits are claimed. 

A good rule of thumb is to have 10 copies of the death certificate, as many organizations and institutions will require this information when reworking financial matters. 

In most cases, a death also means you'll need to probate an estate. This requires visiting a courthouse and going through a formal legal process to distribute the assets of the deceased. You will need many papers to manage the probate process, and they can vary by state. They may include:

  • Accounting forms in which you list the assets of the estate
  • A petition for probate
  • A list of surviving relatives
  • A copy of the death certificate
  • An affidavit detailing the cause of death

If you are not certain how to start the probate process or don't want to navigate the court proceedings on your own, consider hiring an estate planning attorney.

Financial Steps to Take After Your Spouse Dies

After your spouse has passed, there are a number of steps you'll need to take to get your financial affairs in order. These include:

  • Notifying government agencies: You'll need to provide notification of the death to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the Postal Service, and the Department of Transportation, so your spouse can be marked as deceased. This will help you reduce the risk of identity fraud. 
  • Mailing a death certificate to credit reporting agencies: The SSA will notify Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion of your spouse’s death. However, there can be a long lag time between when the SSA notifies these credit bureaus and when the credit bureaus update your spouse’s status. This can lead to clerical errors. It's best to take this step yourself to reduce the risk of identity theft. 
  • Notifying financial institutions: Credit card companies, banks, and other financial institutions should be notified of your spouse’s death. If your spouse was in debt, you will not be responsible for repaying it unless it was jointly held, but the creditors can try to collect it from your spouse's estate during the probate process. 
  • Addressing unpaid hospital, nursing home, and funeral bills: These bills will ideally be paid out of the estate of the deceased. However, there may not be enough money to cover such bills. State laws vary on when family members are required to cover unpaid bills. Also, if Medicaid covered costs, the laws vary on when Medicaid can try to recoup assets from the deceased.
  • Making a list of bills to pay: If you had joint accounts, you will still be responsible for paying your creditors. Make a list of bills that are due in the coming months so none fall through the cracks.
  • Applying for benefits: You may be entitled to death benefits and/or survivor benefits from the Social Security Administration or Veterans Affairs. If your spouse had a pension, you may also be entitled to continue receiving income from it, depending on how the pension was structured. 
  • Making a life insurance claim: If your deceased spouse had a life insurance policy, you will need to follow the instructions from your insurance carrier to claim your death benefit. 
  • Updating your own records: You may need to change your own will and update your power of attorney after your spouse has passed away.
  • Signing up for health insurance: If you were covered by a spouse's insurance policy, you may need to take the time to sign up for your own coverage.
  • Starting the probate process: Many estates must pass through probate. This involves filing papers with the court, giving creditors a chance to make claims, and completing legal proceedings to officially transfer the deceased's assets. The probate process can take between nine months to a year and a half, or even longer in some cases.

When You're Surprised and Unprepared

If a spouse passes away unexpectedly, you may not have the financial documents you need or know what benefits you are entitled to. Speaking with an attorney or financial advisor can be helpful. 

A lawyer can work with you to understand intestacy laws, which determine who will inherit what if your spouse did not have a will. Lawyers can also help you identify techniques to track down financial accounts and discover benefits you may be eligible for. 

The Bottom Line

The death of a spouse is always traumatic. Remember to take your time and get the help you need, both with managing your grief and with getting your financial affairs in order. If you feel lost or need extra help with the process, don’t be afraid to reach out to loved ones, health care professionals, and financial experts for guidance.