Indeed, the to-do list may seem daunting, and you may be unsure where to even begin. Here are six steps to help you get started—and get your finances back in order.
1. Locate the will
Whether you have a joint will or the deceased had their own will, locate the document and contact the attorney who prepared it for advice on your next move. If the will was done online or is some other DIY document, you may want to consult an estate attorney for the next steps. They can help you with probate, the legal process that officially recognizes the will and appoints an executor to administer the estate and distribute assets to the beneficiaries.
If you aren't sure a will exists, search the person's important documents. If there's no will, a judge in probate court will appoint an administrator to ensure the estate is divided according to state law. Even so, an estate attorney is still the first person to check with, as they'll be able to advise you on how to proceed.
2. Get copies of the death certificate
You'll need certified copies of the death certificate to switch or cancel the person's bank or credit accounts and to claim life insurance, retirement funds or pension benefits.
Request at least 12 copies from the funeral home. If your spouse has died, make sure to also have certified copies of your marriage certificate on hand, as you'll need to prove you were married in order to to collect benefits such as a life insurance payout or funds from your spouse's retirement accounts.
3. Investigate available resources
If your loved one had life insurance, contact the insurer(s) to begin the claims process. Then contact your loved one's employer for details on 401(k) or similar retirement accounts, or other employee benefits that may be available to surviving family members.
Also, locate your loved one's Social Security number, and call the Social Security Administration Opens in new window to learn if you're eligible for survivor benefits. Similarly, if the person was in the military, contact the Department of Veterans Affairs Opens in new window to check whether you'll be able to receive benefits.
4. Collect financial documents
Gather the person's important bank and credit account statements, loan documents, recurring monthly bills and retirement account information to determine what to change, cancel or pay.
You'll also need to locate or update account passwords for online account access.
5. Assess your new financial reality
If your household had two incomes, you may have less money to spend or contribute to savings, at least temporarily. If your loved one was a primary caregiver to dependents, the surviving family may have additional child care costs.
Create a new monthly budget, factoring in expenses like child care and income from life insurance, retirement plans and survivor benefits. If you need help, consider meeting with a counselor at a nonprofit credit counseling agency. You may also want to consult with a financial professional for long-term and retirement planning for a future without a spouse.
6. Make changes to the necessary accounts
Contact the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—to report the death, and ask for a "deceased" notation in the report so no one can take out credit in the deceased's name.
If your loved one had credit cards or other loans in their name, contact the lenders to cancel the accounts. Get copies of their credit reports from those "Big Three" bureaus to learn what debts must be paid by the estate. If a bill or utility is solely under their name, contact the company to change it over to the appropriate party.