5 Things to Do When Your Spouse Dies (With Checklists)

Updated May 18, 2022
woman comforting mother after death of spouse

Knowing what to do when your spouse dies will help you get through the formalities of this devastating situation. While the onslaught of phone calls that need to be answered and papers that need to be signed can feel overwhelming, having checklists to guide you can minimize the stress of the decision-making processes and help assist you during your bereavement.

The First Things to Do When Your Spouse Dies

You're not alone if the last thing you want to do when your spouse passes away is add more work and things to your to-do list. With the weight of the world seemingly on your shoulders, it feels almost criminal to have to face the hard realities of settling someone's affairs. Yet, with a deep breath and a guiding hand, you can make it through this impossible situation.

Give Yourself Time to Grieve

When a loved one passes, it can feel like there's not nearly enough time in the day to get everything arranged. While these daily distractions might be helpful in keeping your sadness at bay, it's really important that you give yourself the space to grieve throughout the process. Right after a spouse passes isn't the time to be running to the lock boxes for all of the important paperwork or contacting your local newspaper to schedule an obituary. Giving yourself some time, even twenty minutes, to acknowledge and feel your emotions can get you into a centered emotional space that'll carry you through the end-of-life process.

Enlist the Help of Friends and Family

support for family with death of spouse

For many people, accepting other's help can be a hard thing to do in a regular situation, let alone when they're struggling to come to terms with such a massive loss in their life. When a beloved spouse passes, it's the time to open yourself up to the helping hands of those around you. Let your community carve out the space and time for you to focus on your grief by taking on some of the responsibilities. Even something as small as keeping up with general household chores can be a massive help. Since you might feel more alone than you ever have, it's important to ask your family and friends to rally around you.

Spread the News of Their Passing

While it can be really difficult in the immediate period after your spouse's passing to update those around you as to what happened, it's important that you let their loved ones know within a timely manner so they can have the courtesy of their own period of healing. However, it can be an incredibly painful situation having to speak the words aloud to your loved one's network. Thus, designating someone to make these difficult phone calls and send these heartfelt text messages can be a great idea for some people.

Additionally, your spouse might have been so involved in your community that an official obituary feels appropriate, though it's completely okay if the pomp and circumstance of it all isn't something you feel drawn to being involved in. Remember, whatever feels best to you is absolutely valid.

Make Funeral Arrangements

You or someone in your circle should call and make appointments to tour funeral homes and make the funeral arrangements. Although most people choose a traditional burial, you don't have to have your spouse buried or cremated in the 'typical' way if that's befitting of their wishes and your relationship. For example, some people are exploring eco burial options that may be available in your area.

If you decide to look into traditional funeral homes, the director can take care of a lot of the paperwork after your spouse passes. The funeral director can obtain the death certificate and plan the wake and funeral with your input. Make sure you request several copies of the death certificate to keep with your financial documents.

Gather All of Their Important Documents

After the funeral, it's time to take care of everything that was in your spouse's name; this includes bank accounts, pension, life insurance policies, and more. Here's a compilation of documents that you should obtain so you can begin processing them into your name and take care of any financial obligations (like paying off their debt):

  • Death certificate
  • Will
  • Birth certificate
  • Social security cards (yours and your spouse's)
  • Life insurance policy
  • Loan paperwork
  • Mortgage information
  • Bank statements
  • Leasing documents
  • Homeowner's insurance policy
  • Car insurance policy
  • Divorce agreements
  • Tax returns
  • Stocks and bonds information
  • Safe deposit box key
  • Bills
  • Medicare information (if applicable)

How to Deal With These Documents

While you may feel overwhelmed with the mountain of paperwork that comes with someone's death, one way to make it less overwhelming is to tackle a single task at a time.

  • Address outstanding debt - The first thing you must do is figure out how much money you have and how much debt your spouse owes. You'll have to pay off the debt before you and other beneficiaries will be able to receive assets. You're also required to file a tax return for your spouse to find out if you need to pay taxes.
  • Change the name on their accounts - The next thing you should do is change the name on the will, bank accounts, bills, and insurance policies. Don't forget to change the name on real estate and cars, as well. If you and your spouse shared credit cards, contact the credit card companies and ask them to leave your name but remove your spouse's. Don't close credit cards and open new ones because you will lose some of the good credit if you paid on those cards as required.
  • Contact Social Security - You need to contact Social Security if your spouse received benefits. This is true of any pensions or retirement income as well.

Use This Checklist to Keep the Process Organized

Sometimes it helps to list all of things that you need to do, and this checklist will assist you and keep you on track.

Be Kind to Yourself During This Difficult Time

Ultimately, losing someone as loved and integral to your life as a spouse isn't something you're going to immediately recover from. While it may seem like there are a ton of deadlines to meet and people who are relying on you to make decisions, you have to remember to be kind to yourself and those around you. Grief will manifest differently for every person, and knowing that there's no right way to handle the end of life process for a spouse should bring you some comfort.

5 Things to Do When Your Spouse Dies (With Checklists)