Don’t Make Your Finances an Afterthought. The Complete Surviving Spouse Checklist

In a household, usually someone is a finance nerd and the rest of the people in the home are less enthusiastic about tracking asset allocations and itemizing deductions.

In our case, I’m the finance nerd but my wife is happy to listen to me ramble on about mutual funds and credit card rewards. She’s a great woman, why else would I marry her? 🙂

She’s frugal and good about keeping track of her spending but she leaves the investing and more long term planning to me. It’s in my wheelhouse so she lets me flex my financial muscles.

My wife is much better at education and child psychology. We both listen to each other about our fields of knowledge but our relationship has thrived by focusing on our strengths and asking for help on our weaknesses.

Plan for the Future

When it comes to our financial plan for the future, I’m the expert in our relationship. My wife understands and agrees with what we are trying to accomplish and the vehicles we use to accomplish this but it isn’t as ingrained in her like it is me. If I died or she passed away suddenly, we would both need to make some major changes in how we manage the household and finances. If I died or she passed away suddenly, we would both need to make some major changes in how we manage the household and finances.

Today I have a topic that most of us would like to avoid, but I want to encourage everyone to go through this post and complete the checklist items listed. I know it isn’t fun but if the day comes where you need to know the information, you’ll be glad you did. My friends, for whom our sponsored scholarship is named had to do this when his wife passed in a car wreck. It sucked, but it had to be done. 

Let’s go over the tasks that every couple should do to ensure the other is protected in case one of them passes away. This will probably be more beneficial for the spouse who is less involved with the day to day financial tasks but it could also help the finance nerd keep track of everything in an otherwise difficult time. A lot of this information should be applicable to anyone, not just married couples but I use the term spouse for simplicity in most instances.


Write a Letter

This letter is to your spouse or person that is going to handle your affairs about what you want her/him to know when you are gone.

I would share this letter with each other now so your spouse knows your wishes. It should also include some nonfinancial topics as well.

Remember to spell out your funeral wishes in the letter. Do you want a memorial service? Do you want to be cremated? Remember that the funeral is really more for the living and to help your loved ones say goodbye by fulfilling your last wishes.

It’s been a while since I wrote my letter and a lot has changed in my life. After this article is written that’s my next task. In this letter, it’s a good idea to include the topics that follow.

Surviving Spouse Checklist

 1. List your documents and where they are located.

  • Deeds
  • Life Insurance Policies
  • Tax Returns
  • Death Certificates
  • Marriage Certificates
  • Birth Certificates
  • Brokerage/Investing Accounts
  • Bank Accounts
  • Safe Deposit Box Accounts
  • Home Owners Insurance
  • Health Insurance
  • Credit Reports
  • Company Retirement Plan Documents/Pensions
  • Social Security
  • Will
  • Trust Documents
  • Vehicle Titles
  • Other Titles (Boat, RV, Trailer)
  • Business Documents (LLC, Articles of Incorporation, etc)
  • Storage Rental Documents
  • Computer Passwords

Make sure you itemize where each is placed and how to access them if needed. 


2. Contact your spouse’s employer. (if applicable)

Things to ask about are vacation time/sick pay and back pay. If you are covered under your spouse’s health insurance then there may be a way to continue coverage.

If you can’t continue coverage through the employer, you may need to arrange COBRA. COBRA can be purchased retroactively and is available up to 36 months after the death of a loved one. Also, inquire about life insurance policies or other benefits your spouse may have had with the company.

3. Make a list of people to call.

  • Family Members
  • Friends
  • Financial Advisor
  • Insurance Agents
  • Doctors
  • Funeral Directors/Home
  • Estate Planning Attorney
  • Banks/Credit Unions
  • Credit Card Companies
  • Creditors


4. Call the funeral home.

Plan arrangements for the funeral. Discuss the costs and make arrangements for payments. Review the wishes of your spouse included in the letter above.


5.Call your attorney.

Start the process of reviewing your spouse’s will or trust. You can also ask about probate and what is involved with the process if applicable.


6. Credit Reporting Agencies

Immediately call all three credit agencies:

Request that the credit report is flagged as Deceased, Do Not Issue Credit.

You should also send requests in writing. The agencies eventually receive notice from lenders and/or the social security administration. Notification can be delayed for several months and it is safer to send a certified letter that contains:

  • Copies of papers proving you are the executor or spouse. (marriage certificate or will/trust)
  • A certified copy of the death certificate (one with a raised stamp).
  • the deceased’s:
    • Full name
    • Date of birth
    • Social Security number
    • Most recent address
    • Date of death
  • Request that a “deceased — do not issue credit” flag be placed on the credit file due to death.

Then after you receive notice that the credit bureau letter was delivered and accepted, a few weeks later request your deceased spouse’s credit report so that you don’t miss any liabilities.


P.O. Box 4500
Allen, TX 75013

P.O. Box 105069
Atlanta, Georgia 30348

TransUnion LLC
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19016

7. Make a list of your bills.

Put all the bills in your name and make sure there is a plan to pay them. If you keep track of all your expenses in a program like Personal Capital or your banking accounts then you can easily go through the expenses line by line and see what is coming out and where it is going. Some may be automatic payments. Itemize each bill and make sure it will be paid on time.


8. Contact your life insurance agent.

If there is a life insurance policy, start the process to file a claim. This could take several days to weeks but could be important in paying off debts, paying bills and making further living arrangements by investing the proceeds.


9. Call your financial advisor or someone you trust with your finances.

You won’t be thinking at your best. Even if you have a plan for your investment (and you should), go over the plan and the reasoning with someone you trust. You might be missing or forget something. Maybe your spouse had an advanced investment system you have no ability to continue.

Even the Oracle of Omaha has a simple plan for his heirs. He’s not asking them to take over Berkshire Hathaway but to invest 90% of his estate in a broad-based S&P 500 index fund and 10% in short-term government bonds. A financial advisor can help you execute your own plan. 

If you have a financial advisor, you should have already met with him/her and discussed what should happen in the event of a death. If you haven’t, request a meeting today.

10. Contact creditors to notify them of the death.

  • Car loans,
  • credit cards,
  • student loans

Hopefully, you don’t have any of these.

11. Cancel your spouse’s reoccurring monthly memberships expenses.

  • Health Club
  • Book Club
  • Jelly of the Month Club, you get the idea

12. Update any policies or accounts with your spouse named as the beneficiary.

This could include life insurance, bank, brokerage and other investment accounts.


13. Update any government agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles to update titles.

Sometimes you can transfer a car title easily without probate at the state DMV office. Other states require the car to go through probate depending on who is getting the car. Clarify this with your estate planning attorney.


 14. Change any real estate deeds that named your spouse as owner.

You will need to change the name on the deed to the beneficiary’s name for your personal residence, vacations homes and/or individually owned rental properties. The property may have to go through probate or be transferred via a trust depending on prior estate planning.


15. Prior Military Service

If your spouse is former military contact the Department of Veteran Affairs for possible benefits. 

Contact Defence Finance and Accounting Services if your spouse is retired military.

Defense Finance and Accounting Service
U.S. Military Retired Pay
8899 E 56th Street
Indianapolis, IN 46249-1200

Phone Number 800-321-1080

16. Call your health insurance company to report the death and finalize any medical bills/claims.

If there are associated medical expenses, plan accordingly for those.


17. Business or Real Estate Partnerships

Contact real estate partners, business partners and employees your spouse may have had. You may also need to contact an attorney to facilitate any transfer of assets from the businesses or properties. 



18. Make a plan for the future.

Discuss if and how you will make changes to investments, accounts and insurance coverage. You may lose income. Consider how that will affect your life.

You may need to make other arrangements for your children. Consider the alternatives for school if necessary. If you have a child in college at the time of death there are financial assistance programs like scholarships or change to the FAFSA calculations that may be applicable.

Make a budget and map out any changes in expenses depending on the other financial considerations. 


Get your own checklist

It’s important to know this list before you really need it. Make sure the information is accessible. I made a PDF of this checklist that you can print out and keep with your letter and other documents.

Just join the email list and you’ll get access to my calculators, the Surviving Spouse checklist, and an email when a new blog post comes out Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Free Checklist Please!

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Is there anything I missed? Have you had this discussion? Do you have any tips that could make it easier? Let me know what you think.

Tom is a doctor, husband and father of five with a passion for parenting and finance. When he isn't skateboarding, riding BMX, or jumping on the trampoline with his kids, he is reading and writing about personal finance. He helps high income parents educate and mentor their kids to become financially, emotionally, and intellectually self sufficient.

11 Responses to “Don’t Make Your Finances an Afterthought. The Complete Surviving Spouse Checklist

  • I really like this concept. We currently have many other important documents and pieces of information in multiple locations and somewhat scattered. This looks like a great exercise to help get us organized and prepared for the type of situation I hope to never face!

    • It takes some work but once you know where everything is you are set. Then we just have to add to it as other investments or properties are purchased.

      Tom @ HIP

  • Wonderful post and I completely agree. It’s important to prepare for the future and that includes emergencies. Having this type of information somewhere safe and together is a great suggestion. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Lance. It was easier to put things together when we were young because there just wasn’t as much to collect. Now the pile of documents and webpages is getting pretty big but at least we have it organized if an emergency happens.


  • This is a very thorough list. I haven’t thought that far yet (maybe because it scares me a bit), but maybe I should. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks Ms. FAF. It is scary to a lot of people but it’s a lot harder to scramble to collect all this stuff if you lose a spouse so that was the motivation for us to get everything together.

      Tom @ HIP

  • Great list Tom! While my clients are younger physicians, we still touch on a few of these “more important” items and general organization of finances. It’s extremely important even though it might seem tedious and depressing thinking of your spouses mortality.

    Excellent post!

    • Thanks Ryan,
      Keeping the list handy will help if anyone ever has to go through this. I guess we all will eventually, but hopefully it’s a long way off.
      It’s in that category along with making a will and talking about funeral arrangements but it needs to be done. I try to emphasize that we are making things easier in case we have to face the worst instead of facing our own and loved one’s mortality.

      Tom @ HIP

  • Very important and often overlooked list. People tend to want to ignore these things, but making a list now is much easier then your spouse doing so once your gone.

  • This is such a great topic to write about because eventually, we are all going to need to pull this one out of the archives. I am just now wrapping up my grandfather’s estate after 3 years. I have learned a lot in the process and has led me to post a similar article of my own.

    This isn’t your everyday checklist and isn’t something that is necessarily difficult to run through, but there is an emotional piece that is ever-present during this time. It’s not even something you can prepare yourself for, mentally; nevertheless, acknowledging it will help you balance your duty and emotions should the responsibility fall on you.

    Great post. I learn something new every time I come across one of these.

    • Thanks for stopping by Church. I’m sorry for your loss but I’m sure you’ve gained some valuable insight from handling your grandfather’s estate.
      I have a friend going through the same thing and I’m sure I will be encountering this more and more as my own parents and grandparents age, hopefully not for a long time though.
      You’re so right about the emotional component that is impossible to predict. At least we can get a frame of reference for the nuts and bolts finances before having to face this difficult task.

      Tom @ HIP

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