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On Your Own: Financial Advice After Losing a Spouse

It’s a day your client hoped would never come. His spouse has died. His world is turned upside down, leaving him vulnerable and bereft. And as he’s dealing with his grief and loss, he will be required to make critical legal and financial decisions. It can be overwhelming, especially if the spouse was the one who managed the financial and legal affairs.

The following are some recommendations about how to approach decisions that need to be made quickly and those that can wait until later, when your client feels emotionally ready, more knowledgeable and in control. 

Immediate Priorities

Gathering Documents—Some of the items your client will need to gather quickly after a spouse’s death include:

  • 15–20 copies of the certified death certificate. Certified copies can be obtained through a funeral director or directly from the county health department.
  • Copies of insurance policies for life, health, home, auto, mortgage, accident and any other coverage. If your client doesn’t have them, ask your insurance agent/s for help.
  • Social Security numbers for the spouse and dependent children, which can be obtained through a local Social Security office.
  • Marriage certificate and children’s birth certificates, which can be obtained from the county or state in which they were issued.
  • Your client’s spouse’s will and a list of all assets. The list of assets should include the spouse’s property, including real estate, stocks, bonds, savings accounts, land titles, stock certificates and other financial papers and personal property. Be sure to check safe deposit boxes for any documents that might be stored there.
  • Check the titles of any vehicles or property the spouse owned in case they need to be changed.
  • Military discharge papers, which can be obtained at The Department of Defense, National Personnel Record Center, 9700 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, Mo. 63132.

Notifications—It is important to send notifications quickly after a spouse dies. Notify the spouse’s employer, financial and investment institutions and insurers. The spouse’s employer can let your client know of any insurance policies that were in effect and answer questions about health insurance.

Update accounts, registrations and beneficiaries—All accounts that were held jointly will need to be retitled in your client’s name, including bank accounts, investment accounts and credit cards. Any bank account held solely by the spouse will need to go through probate, unless it was part of a trust. Likewise, if a safety deposit box was held only in the spouse’s name, you will need a court order to have access to anything in it other than the spouse’s will and other materials related to their death.

Your client will also will need to update beneficiaries on all insurance policies and retirement accounts.

Veterans—If the spouse was a veteran, your client may be eligible to receive a lump-sum payment for burial expenses and an allowance toward a plot in a private cemetery (burial in a national cemetery is free to a veteran, their spouse and dependent children). Veterans also may be eligible for a headstone or grave marker. The funeral director can help your client apply for these benefits or you can contact the regional Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) office.

Review your financial plan—Consult with your client to assess their current financial situation and update their financial plans, taking into account liquidity needs, risk tolerance, time horizon and goals.

Perform a lifestyle analysis to help determine how much your client needs and how long their assets will last. Itemize and assess your client’s investments and align their portfolio to match their needs, including generating income, now and in the future. 

Help them to consider future costs, such as retirement living expenses, and decide whether they need to keep working, when they can afford to retire or if they can afford to stay retired.


Aviva Pinto is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CDFA™) and a Director of Bronfman E.L. Rothschild in New York.

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