The loss of a spouse or significant other, suddenly or after a long illness, is traumatic and changes your life in ways you cannot imagine.   

One of the hardest things about becoming "suddenly widowed" is that you don't have your spouse's advice, or suggestions about how to move forward financially.  Interestingly, losing a spouse after a long illness does not necessarily put you at an advantage with the financial side of loss either. Sometimes during a long illness the surviving spouse hesitates to bring the subject up with their partner, they do not want to remind them that they are dying. Now, this is not true in every situation but it is surprisingly common, particularly with people in my age group.  

If you are smart, this is a conversation that you and your spouse will have early on in your marriage, perhaps even noting some of the specifics in a will. But, not everyone has such a proactive and pragmatic approach to life. If you are less prepared or even suffered a sudden loss, similar to my own, here are a few things to help you organize yourself. I consider this almost like a checklist, but please keep in mind that every person's situation is unique:  

  1. Make an appointment with a funeral home director. It is a good idea to make appointments with more than one, as your relationship with the funeral director is important. You need to feel a connection personally; you are entrusting your loved one's remains to this person.
    1. The funeral director takes care of a lot of the paperwork after someone dies. They will obtain the death certificate and will help with the planning of the services, such as a viewing and burial.
    2. Be sure and let the funeral director know if your loved one served in the military, he or she may be eligible to be buried in one of our national veteran's cemeteries.
    3. You will need his or her DD214 to qualify for this. 
  2. Contacting your spouse's employer is one of the very first things you should do.
    1. Request (and read) an employee handbook before meeting with a company representative. You may find out about a benefit you did not know existed.
    2. Request any information on pension and/or retirement programs and any life insurance your spouse may have had that you are not aware of.  
  3. Locate your spouse's legal documents; i.e. property deeds and titles such as real property like cars and boats. 
  4. Identify your spouse's financial assets and obligations.
    1. You will need to locate checking and savings accounts and any brokerage accounts.
    2. Pension/Retirement programs and life insurance will all help to determine your assets.
    3. Obligations will include any mortgages, auto and personal loans, and unpaid credit card balances. 
  5. Contact Social Security to see if there are any benefits you are eligible for through them.  
  6. You need to locate your spouse's Will, if there is one, his or her birth certificate, their DD214 if they were in the military (as previously mentioned), Social Security card, any life insurance policies, mortgage information, and bank statements. 

It is very important that you try to entrust somebody to help you through this process. Request help from your children, or a trusted friend or neighbor. Locating and reviewing documents during this difficult time is an emotionally draining task. It is easy to miss something important and you are really going through enough right now; do not be afraid to ask for help! 

Do you have any tips for other widows/widowers? What lessons can you share that you have learned when dealing with the loss of a loved one?

Judy Kline

Judy is retired and recently widowed. She is a contributing author for the Retired & Widowed blog where she shares what she has learned about living on a fixed retirement income as a widow. Judy is an amateur photographer and has nine grandchildren.