THE BLOG
04/08/2013 08:40 am ET Updated Jun 08, 2013

5 Things You Need To Do When (Or Preferably Before) You Have Lost Your Spouse That No One Tells You

Although certainly not among the most enthralling subjects, dealing with financial fall-out after the loss of a spouse is undoubtedly among the most important. While almost everything else on a widowed's to-do list can wait, the importance of setting financial and legal transition into immediate motion cannot be overstated. If you are not widowed, you should view the following as necessary preparation "just in case". If you are widowed, you are no doubt feeling completely overwhelmed and without any sense of direction as to where to begin. Regardless of your current marital status, the following tips will give you an excellent idea of how to get organized, stay organized and how your list of priorities should proceed; essentially the five things that every spouse needs to know that you likely have not been told.

(I know this because nobody ever told me.)

1. IF AT ALL POSSIBLE, DO NOT WAIT FOR WIDOWHOOD

Let's be honest. No one likes to talk about not being around anymore. It is not a fun subject and it is a difficult conversation to have. However, the number of letters that I receive that begin with, "S/He always took care of everything" or "I can't find the paperwork that the bank is asking for, what do I do now?" or "I don't even know how to balance a checkbook" are countless and sad. Folks, this is the 21st century and ignorance is no longer bliss (that is, if ignorance indeed ever was bliss). You need to know absolutely everything about your financial situation as a couple. Discuss every single asset, liability, debt, loan, credit card and insurance policy that exists, because the last thing that you want during a time of bereavement are any unpleasant "surprises".

Since the other thing that no one needs during a period of bereavement is a scavenger hunt, make sure that all of your important papers are in one place and that the location of these papers are known to at least two adults. Use a pocketed folder which should include copies of your Wills (and any codicils), insurance policies, advance directives and a detailed list of instructions (including bank account numbers, telephone numbers, insurance company information, etc.).

2. ORGANIZATION IS KEY

During a time of bereavement, to-do lists are lengthy and sleep is generally in short supply. You are likely to become easily overwhelmed, with no idea of where -- or how -- to begin the arduous task of financial and legal maze-navigation. Even if you are one of those talented souls who can keep everything straight in their memory bank, you cannot use the "Got It All Right Here In My Head" method to keep track of all of the paperwork and ensuing follow up; particularly during a time of bereavement. Every single bank, credit card company, insurance company and government entity asks for something different. Set up a system where you can easily access paperwork, take notes and calendar to follow up promptly if things do not happen as promised.

3. PRIORITIZE

Your first and top priority should be taking care of anything that concerns the generation of income to your household. However, whether it is the issuance of life insurance proceeds or government benefits to which you may be entitled, no monetary proceed is going to be issued to you until you have received copies of your spouse's death certificate and thereafter provide copies to the appropriate companies and government entitles. Your funeral or hospice director will usually take care of obtaining the certificates for you (I highly recommend a minimum of 12 copies). Be sure to follow up if necessary -- for example, if you are told that it takes 30 days to obtain certificates and you have not received them within the allotted time parameters; call the responsible person on the 31st day.

4. KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

Did you know that depending on where you live, you may not be responsible for debt that you did not incur? This may include credit cards held in your spouse's name alone, as well as loans, lines of credit and debt amassed prior to your marriage. It is very important that you familiarize yourself with the laws where you live; otherwise you could either wind paying debts for which you are not legally liable or not paying debts for which you are considered the responsible party. Be aware that regardless of where you live, if you are an authorized user on any credit card or a listed party on any loan (home, car, etc.), this is debt that you will most likely have to assume and repay.

5. ARE YOU PREPARED?

After the transitions are made, after the phone calling is done, after the paperwork is filed and copies are safely put away...there is just one more thing: Ensure that your financial house is in order. For example, do you have a will? If you think that wills are only for the "rich and famous"... think again. If you die intestate (without a will or trust), the government decides who gets what and I know of no one who prefers that the government makes those decisions.

Next, do you have life insurance? I have never understood those who refer to life insurance as being "prepared for the unexpected". Since when is death "unexpected"? While the date may be unexpected, the inevitability is not. Think about it -- we carry automobile insurance and homeowners insurance on the chance that something bad might happen; yet we either skimp on or skip over life insurance entirely; a minimal investment that basically prepares for an eventuality and eases the way for your family.

Life insurance is far less expensive than you think and relives financial burdens on surviving loved ones when the time comes. Do your research and get several quotes, beginning with the insurance company that carries your homeowner and/or automobile insurance (they may likely be able to provide you with a "bundle" discount).

Finally and as discussed earlier, make sure that your important papers, account numbers, telephone numbers and instructions are in one folder, kept in one place and that at least two adults know where that one place is.

A BONUS REMINDER

BE GOOD TO YOU AT ALL TIMES

While there is no argument that the financial and legal transition from spouse to widowed survivor is urgent, you do not have to accomplish everything all in one day. Remember, everything will eventually get done. Do what you are able and when it starts to feel like information overload... put it away for the day. Make yourself a cup of tea and relax -- above all else comes your health and serenity and now more than ever, you need both rest and time to rejuvenate. Most of all, take comfort in the certainty that though you may not be able to see it right now, this minute, things do get easier... one day at a time.

Additional information and direction on how to financially and legally transition after spousal loss can be found in "Happily Even After..." (Viva Editions) and "Widows Wear Stilettos..." (New Horizon Press)

Carole's latest book, "Happily Even After..." is the winner of the prestigious Books for a Better Life Award. For more information about Carole Brody Fleet and Widows Wear Stilettos, please visit www.widowswearstilettos.com

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