How to Manage Household Finances After Your Spouse Dies

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Few people want to consider what might happen after the death of a spouse, but it’s an inevitability that many of us will have to prepare for—and for widows or widowers who aren’t prepared, the period immediately after a spouse’s death can be a financial nightmare.

The New York Times has an in-depth guide to managing household finances after a spouse dies, starting with the advice to share as much financial information as possible before this even happens:

Susan Covell Alpert was crushed by grief when her 71-year-old husband, Larry, died of leukemia in 2008. Adding to her misery, a tidal wave of financial decisions and tasks demanded the new widow’s attention at a time when she could barely think straight.

Like many couples, Susan and Larry, who were married for 46 years, had divided the financial chores. Larry handled the investments, and Susan paid some bills. Though Ms. Alpert owned a business arranging travel incentives for large corporations, she was not prepared to manage the household’s financial affairs.

“I knew every stock, and I knew where everything was,” said Ms. Alpert, 78. “But I didn’t know what to do with it all.”

If you and your spouse also divide financial chores, make sure both of you understand not only the state of the household finances but also how to complete each other’s tasks. Consider creating a hard copy list of financial accounts, with login and password information where appropriate—and keep it updated. If you’re concerned about password security, you can deposit that list with your lawyer or with the executor of your will. (You do have a will, right?)

After the death of a spouse, the surviving widow or widower will be faced with myriad tasks, from arranging for the funeral to dealing with the deceased’s credit cards. The NYT suggests creating a prioritized to-do list:

Surviving spouses can alleviate some stress by attacking the to-do list in stages, [certified financial planner Alexandra Armstrong] said. At the top: Notify the Social Security Administration, call the life insurance company and pay important bills, such as those for utilities and property insurance premiums. If a husband was still working when he died, his widow should check with his employer for any unpaid salary, accrued vacation days and retirement plans. She also may be eligible for veterans’ benefits.

One of Ms. Alpert’s first moves was to name her two adult daughters as her agents for her financial and health care powers of attorney.

Read the full article to learn more about how to both prepare for and handle the financial tasks that arise after the death of a spouse—and if you have additional advice to share, please do.