Gathering, Claiming, Deciding: Helping an Older Relative With Finances After Losing a Spouse

Gathering, Claiming, Deciding: Helping an Older Relative with Finances After Losing a Spouse

No one’s ever really prepared for the death of a spouse. A couple may have discussed it many times, perhaps even planned for it, but the shock of emotional loss and the profound sense of grief just can’t be anticipated. Inevitably, there’s a transition period during which the surviving spouse struggles to cope with what’s happened. Unfortunately, that’s not the only difficult transition to be faced.

There’s also a financial transition that can be confusing and emotionally overwhelming. A devastated and distraught older relative may need help understanding what needs to be done and how to go about it. The help of a younger family member can be invaluable, especially someone who understands what decisions can be put off until things are under control.  

To sell or not to sell

Deciding whether or not to put your relative’s home on the market is a major, life-changing decision that can usually be delayed until after the funeral and after the departed’s estate has been settled. Downsizing can be a liberating act, and selling is certainly a good way to create cash flow to pay for health care costs and other end-of-life expenses, assuming you’ll make a profit, of course. If market conditions are good, other homes in the area are selling, and your family member is ready to downsize, it could be a good time to make this transition sooner than later.  

The will

A will is probably the single most important document, because it proves beyond doubt the veracity of your relative’s claims to assets and other financial resources from their spouse’s estate. It’s a witnessed document that your attorney files as a matter of public record. Contact the attorney’s office to obtain copies if you’re unable to locate it at home. While the estate is being finalized, it also may be necessary to provide a full list of the departed’s assets and holdings, including property, stocks, bonds, savings, real estate holdings, bank and investment accounts, and more. Look for titles, stock certificates, and any other documents that provide tangible proof of the holdings to which your relative may be entitled.

Gather the papers

One of the first and most important steps that needs to be taken is to gather all the paperwork you’ll need to process claims and finalize your loved one’s arrangements. One of the most important of these is the death certificate, an official document the insurance company will need to see in order to process your insurance claim and other benefits. Have several copies on hand, because it’ll be needed many times. These can be obtained inexpensively through your funeral director or from your local county health department.

Social Security

If your relative’s spouse had paid into Social Security for a minimum of 40 calendar quarters, he or she is considered covered. A call to the Social Security Administration (800-772-1213) can confirm your relative’s eligibility. The one-time death benefit pays out a benefit for burial expenses, a process that can be completed at your area Social Security office or through your funeral director. Act on this benefit right away to make sure your relative receives his or her death benefit in a timely manner. Also check eligibility for survivor’s benefits if he or she is 60 or older, a disabled widow age 50 or older, or if caring for dependent children under age 16 or who are disabled.

Insurance policies

Locate paperwork concerning any insurance policies your relative and spouse had together. These are proof of their right to the financial benefits that will be needed to see them through this difficult period. Survivors’ Social Security numbers will also be needed to process claims. Hopefully, these are documents your relative’s spouse kept in a safe deposit box or some other central location. If not, you may need to find them the hard way. This could be a good opportunity to begin decluttering, a process that could help your relative decide whether or not they’re ready to downsize.


Be aware that a marriage certificate will be needed if you intend to apply for benefits based on a marital relationship. Copies can be purchased from the county clerk’s office. Your children’s birth certificates will also be needed if they are named as dependents. If you’re unable to locate these, contact the county public health office where your dependents were born.

The death of a spouse leaves a terrible gap in one’s life. Having to deal with the financial aftermath at the same time can be frightening, especially if you don’t know where to begin. Helping an older relative get organized is an important first step, and being in possession of all the paperwork is the best way to get matters under control.

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