The loss of a spouse or life partner is traumatic, especially during the holidays.  Research indicates that deaths increase during the holiday season and winter months, but there is no significant known factor.  When you lose a loved one, the ability to function, to analyze information and to make decisions can be impaired.  However, if the survivor progresses in an organized and deliberate manner and seeks the appropriate advice, costly errors can be avoided.

Immediate Issues

Activities that must occur immediately following the loss of a spouse or partner include contacting friends, relatives, and business associates; making decisions regarding the funeral services or implementing the pre-planned arrangements; and deciding how to honor the deceased.  When you meet with the funeral home, they will contact social security, Medicare, and order death certificates (five to ten should be sufficient). 

Financial Issues

Sage advice for relationship survivors is to avoid making major decisions, such as moving, for six to twelve months.  Waiting an appropriate amount of time will hopefully allow for decisions to be made with information instead of emotion. 

Unfortunately, there are other decisions concerning financial issues that may need immediate attention.  Some of those issues involve the following:

  • Meet with an estate planning attorney prior to changing title on any assets or claiming IRA or life insurance benefits.  There may be more tax-efficient strategies available to you.  The attorney can also assist you in filing probate and/or obtaining letters testamentary.
  • IRA and other retirement account benefits can be rolled directly into a spouse’s IRA and treated as his/her own.  However, depending on the need for funds, it may be more appropriate to leave the funds in the participants name to accelerate distributions. 
  • Contact the bank to open an estate checking account in order to pay final expenses and receive any refunds.  Contact credit card companies for any outstanding rewards and to close the account.
  • If needed, transfer home, vehicle, utilities, cable, etc. to the name of the survivor.
  • Life insurance proceeds are available to the beneficiary free of income tax.  Typically, the proceeds will be available as a lump sum and the beneficiary can use the funds to pay the final expenses or estate taxes.  The insurance professional may suggest reinvesting the life insurance proceeds in an annuity.  While this strategy may be appropriate in limited circumstances, it will greatly restrict access to the funds.  Wait to make this decision after thoroughly reviewing the family’s financial situation.
  • Whether you pay off the mortgage or other debt with liquid assets of the estate or life insurance proceeds will depend on several factors, such as the loan interest rate and the future family cash flow.  Eliminating debt may provide emotional comfort, but could potentially limit other financial planning options.
  • Employee benefits should be addressed quickly.  Earned, but unpaid salary, unused vacation, and sick days will provide additional income and is generally provided automatically by the employer.  Other benefits, such as the 401(k) savings account, pension plan, and deferred compensation, may require decisions on how to handle the proceeds prior to completing paperwork.  Equity compensation, such as stock options, can be more complicated and should be reviewed carefully.
  • Any unfinished business of the decedent that is in process, such as a purchase or sale transaction, should be reviewed thoroughly.  First, assure that the transaction is legitimate.  Second, evaluate all the options that may allow the transaction to be continued, terminated, or modified to reflect the new situation. 
  • If the decedent served in the military, contact the Veteran’s Administration to determine if benefits are available.
  • Cancel email, social media, and other online accounts to avoid fraud or identity theft. The procedures for each website will vary. For instance, Facebook can either have the account memorialized or deleted. 


The loss of a spouse or lifetime partner creates an emotional state that is not conducive to making sound decisions or being proactive. Taking the time to organize information and to make certain decisions today can reduce the stress and anxiety created when such a situation occurs. 

In addition, it is important to seek the advice of your financial planner, estate attorney, and tax accountant to assure the strategies planned during your lifetime can be appropriately implemented.

Meredith Carbrey, CFP, is a Senior Wealth Advisor with Bedel Financial Consulting, Inc., a wealth management firm located in Indianapolis. For more information, visit their website at or email Meredith at

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