Moving Forward Financially After the Loss of a Loved One

Even as you work through your grief, there are some important financial tasks to take care of along the way. Here is a framework to use as a starting point.

(Image credit: Copyright Maskot . (Copyright Maskot . (Photographer) - [None])

The loss of a partner or family member is a life-changing event laden with intense emotions. Whether the death is sudden or precipitated by an illness, the loss is just the same — real and painful.

There are no rules about how you should feel or how long it will take you to regain your energy and capacity to move on. Grief is difficult to avoid as well as the avalanche of financial and legal undertakings that will require your immediate attention.

However, there are several actions that can ease this process and help you to get back on track financially.

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A Checklist of Tasks to Complete

After you've attended to the emotionally charged events of funeral preparations and services, it can be helpful to take a step back and prioritize.

Some tasks will be more pressing than others. Here’s a checklist of what you will need to address in short order.

  • Collect Social Security number, birth certificate, marriage certificate and military discharge papers.
  • Get at least 10 copies of Death certificates — each death claim will need to be accompanied by an original copy of the death certificate
  • Notify the Social Security office of the death and file a Social Security benefits claim form to qualify for the death benefit. The official Social Security death benefit is just a one-time $255 payment. However, Social Security survivor benefits are much more important as they provide family members with monthly payments that sometimes last for the rest of their lives.
  • Locate car title(s).
  • Get current statements for bank, brokerage and retirement accounts.
  • File the person’s will with your local Probate Court (or have your attorney file it). If your loved one did not have a will, that person is dying “intestate.” Their heirs will have no say over any of the deceased’s assets and their estate goes into probate, which is a legal process to decide who will inherit what.
  • Obtain letters testamentary from the local courthouse (attorney can obtain). This is a document issued by a court of public or official authorizing the executor of a will to take control of the deceased person’s estate.
  • File a death claim with the person’s life insurance company, if applicable.
  • Check with the Employer’s Benefits department about survivorship pension, health insurance, unpaid salary, life insurance benefits, if applicable.
  • Prepare a preliminary monthly budget and income summary.

This is a stressful time, especially if the surviving partner did not play an active role in the finances. If you don’t have an existing relationship with an attorney, accountant or a financial planner, seek the advice of a trusted friend or family member who can recommend one. If you have a working relationship with one or more of these professionals, it is time to assemble your team to tackle the next set of actions.

  • Retitle joint accounts into your name.
  • It is commonly recommended to keep a joint checking account for at least a year — to deposit checks made payable to the deceased. However, this may not be true in all cases.
  • Transfer any inherited IRA into your name and take out a required minimum distribution, if applicable. Assign new beneficiaries.
  • Update deeds for any real estate joint held with rights of survivorship.
  • File a federal estate tax return within nine months. Some states have earlier deadlines for estate returns.

Overcoming Grief Takes Time

The loss of a loved one can bring with it immense pain and suffering, particularly if the death is unexpected. With such a financial burden and countless legal requirements placed on your shoulders, it can be difficult to remember that grief takes time.

Don't let the outside pressures overwhelm you. Now is the time to lean on friends and family for support. Don't rush yourself or break down with anxiety just to get the process done as soon as possible. Finances can be tricky, but not as tricky as pain. Allow the pain time to heal and you'll be able to better move on emotionally and financially.

The challenges you're facing don't have to be faced alone. There is always help available to assist you during this time of mourning. Keep in mind that financial matters can be dealt with anytime, but grief is something that cannot be controlled, so taking your time is the best thing you can do for yourself.

Securities offered through National Securities Corporation, member FINRA/SIPC. Advisory services offered through National Asset Management, an SEC registered investment adviser. Fixed Insurance Products offered through National Insurance Corporation.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Ephie Coumanakos
Managing Partner, Concord Financial Group

Ephie Coumanakos is the co-founder and managing partner of Concord Financial Group and a graduate of The Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania. She specializes in the areas of retirement and pre-retirement planning, asset preservation, wealth management and estate planning. Ephie frequently appears as a speaker at financial workshops in the areas of retirement and estate planning, asset preservation strategies and tax management.