Money Management

When you lose a loved one…

DATE | 05/08/18
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When your spouse or significant other passes away, you may feel overwhelmed with the details of settling the estate. Knowing what to do isn’t necessarily common knowledge—and it isn’t necessarily easy, especially at such a difficult time.

While taking care of financial matters may be the last thing you want to think about, it is important to get started quickly to minimize any financial complications—or even the risk of fraud.

Here are some general guidelines to help make the process a little easier during this stressful transition.

Important documents to have

No matter what your level of wealth, generally both of you should have:

A will to set forth your wishes regarding the distribution of your property and care for any minor children when you die.

A power of attorney to designate an agent to act on your behalf on financial matters if you become incapacitated.

A health care directive and power of attorney to provide general healthcare instructions and choose who can make decisions for you if you become unable to.


Download “What to do when you lose a loved one” eBook


First things first

Within a week of a loved one passing, you will need to:

Order 10-25 death certificates from the county registrar, health department, or funeral director. You’ll need these for proof that your loved one has died. (While this has been cited as a recommended amount, you should consider what you need for your own circumstances. Some people need more, some much less.)

Alert your loved one’s employer (if they had one) and ask for information on death benefits, insurance polices, salary due, and retirement assets. Ask who the designated beneficiaries are on any retirement accounts.

If you are not the executor, notify that person and set up a time to discuss legal, financial, and tax issues.

Gather important documents. This includes wills, taxes, and other legal documents, financial statements, real estate documents, insurance policies, retirement account statements, employee benefits, birth and marriage certificates, Social Security information, and others. Find helpful information and a checklist by downloading our eBook, “What to do when you lose a loved one.”

What to do next

In the first weeks following the loss of your loved one, you’ll have a number a tasks ahead.

Review the legal and financial documents you’ve gathered, notify the companies involved of the death, file any life insurance claims, and follow through on any financial obligations.

Start doing your research.

  • Find out what Social Security benefits are available to you and notify them if your loved one was receiving benefits.
  • Understand your tax obligations with the IRS. You may want to work with a tax advisor.
  • If your spouse was a public school employee or state worker, find out about possible spousal benefits from the Wisconsin Retirement System.
  • Contact Medicare if your loved one was receiving benefits.
  • If your spouse was a veteran, inquire about possible survivor benefits.

Claim joint assets. If you are a spouse, most assets are passed to you without approval from a probate court, but that’s not always the case. Rules for property titles can also vary by county.

Protect against identity theft. Close or freeze any accounts, including credit cards, in the deceased’s name as soon as possible. Pay any outstanding bills, notify credit reporting agencies of the death, and cancel their driver’s license. If a vehicle is titled in your loved one’s name, you’ll need to transfer the title.

Review your sources of income and expenses. It can be very helpful to create a budget if you don’t have one. Use our budget sheet and access online tools through your bank or credit union, or use sites like

Get professional assistance. You may need to contact an estate attorney, financial consultant, tax specialist, and/or insurance agent for help with various financial and legal matters that need to be resolved, including any death benefits you may be entitled to.

If your spouse had a retirement account at Member Benefits

In the month to follow…

If your loved one had any memberships, subscriptions, or auto-renewals on their bank account, now is a good time to follow up.

Follow up with credit reporting agencies to make sure no fraudulent accounts have been opened in your loved one’s name.

Update your information on personal accounts and property. Make sure your beneficiaries are up to date on your retirement accounts as well.

Look into e-mail and other online accounts that your loved one had open. Different platforms have their own options and policies about terminating accounts. Some, like Facebook and Instagram, can be memorialized if you so choose.

Get help

Seek financial guidance after things have settled a bit. As a public school employee, you have us. Member Benefits has several financial planning services available, whether you’re early in your career, in the middle, or nearing retirement—or whether you are a family member of a school employee.

We’re always here to help you start planning your financial future and answer any questions you may have. Don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed…we’ll help guide you no matter how financially savvy you may be.

Final thoughts

One more important point—in the first weeks and months following your loss, put a hold on making any major financial decisions. This is an emotional and vulnerable time. You’ll need some time to grieve and process the situation before you decide on selling a house, making changes to assets, etc. Don’t loan or gift money to family or friends without having a good handle on what your financial future will be. You may also be contacted by sales people trying to talk you into buying financial products and services…and they may not have your best interest in mind.

Don’t let anyone pressure you into anything. Wait until you’ve had some time to grieve and things have settled down so you can get some clarity before making any changes.

If you can, plan ahead

Things usually go more smoothly during this time if you plan ahead with your family members before anything happens. It may not be easy, but opening up a dialogue with your adult children and other involved relatives, as well as your executor or trustee, is important so that everyone involved understands each other’s wishes and needs.

Keep in mind that while everyone can express an opinion, don’t feel pressured—ultimately, each person needs to make their own decisions about their final wishes.


WEA Member Benefits

  • 1-800-269-4030 Retirement
  • 1-800-279-4030 Insurance

Free eBook with checklist: What to do when you lose a loved one

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal, financial, or tax advice. Certain recommendations or guidelines may not be appropriate for everyone. Consult your personal advisor or attorney for advice specific to your unique circumstances before taking action.