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Preparing for the Death of a Spouse

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Learning a spouse is dying is extremely difficult. Emotions will be understandably high, but it’s important to plan ahead. You need to know passwords to accounts, personal assets, financial information such as retirement and bank accounts, what insurance your spouse has, even where physical keys may be hidden. It will be hard, but not planning will only add to the stress of losing your loved one. Let’s go over some ways to prepare for a spouse’s death.

Create a checklist

This checklist, provided by the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of San Francisco, will provide a strong start to your planning. This first step is important – do not be afraid to ask for help. Friends, professional counselors, and religious advisors are all excellent resources to help you through this tough time. The emotions you will feel are completely natural and normal, and loved ones can and will be there for you.

Review finances and other important documents

It’s important to know where all of your spouse’s financial information is. First, if your spouse has a life or burial insurance policy, be sure you know where the documents are stored. MarketWatch also suggests you have the following readily available:

  • Marriage license
  • Social Security number
  • Health care agent and living will
  • Passwords and logins for accounts – from Facebook to bank accounts
  • Birth certificate
  • If applicable, military discharge papers and veteran’s benefit statement
  • A durable power of attorney for yourself
  • The last will or living trust – more on this later

This is not a comprehensive list of what you will need, but these are some of the most commonly requested. You should also make a list of important personal assets (Examples include safety deposit boxes, utilities, and credit card accounts that automatically submit payment, retirement accounts, stocks, and bonds). A template can be found here.

Social Security will pay a survivor’s benefit if your spouse met eligibility requirements. If you already receive retirement or disability benefits from Social Security, you do not need to apply; your payments will be automatically adjusted.

You should also check your homeowner’s insurance, as some policies pay off the house after a premature death of a spouse. If your spouse has a retirement plan, it too may pay out in the event of premature death. Check with your spouse’s previous employers in case they offer a pension. Be sure to consult your attorney, financial consultant, or accountant for specific details on your plans and insurance. Finally, and most importantly, be sure you have all of your normal bills – mortgage, car, credit card, etc. – in one place. These will need to be in your name moving forward. If you are unable to pay them, contact your creditors – they may be able to delay payment due to the situation.


Discussing your spouse’s last wishes may seem daunting, but it’s another important task. They may have specific medical directives, such as wanting a Do Not Resuscitate order – especially if they are terminally ill. If not, someone – likely you – should be given medical power of attorney, allowing the attorney-in-fact to make medical decisions, including terminating life support. Durable power of attorney – which continues even after the grantor’s death – may include this. Finally, you should discuss whether your spouse wishes to donate part or all of their body for medical purposes. Examples include donating organs for those in need, medical practice for doctors in training, and medical research.

Next, you should discuss funeral preferences. Would they prefer to be buried or cremated? Contacting multiple funeral homes can give you options at varying costs (the average funeral in America costs about $10,000). You or other family members may disagree with how your loved one wants to be memorialized, but remember this is about honoring them and respecting their decisions.

Estate planning

Speak with a lawyer, if possible, and set up estate planning in advance. This can come in one of three forms: A will, a living will, or a living trust.

A will and living trust are similar, though a living trust allows you to avoid probate and simply transfer the items directly to your beneficiaries. However, it is more expensive to create, must be maintained, and you must actively pass ownership of the assets to the trust.

Your second option is more commonly known. A will requires your beneficiaries to go through probate court in order to receive their items, and it takes longer than a living trust but is cheaper to create. If your state has simple probate laws or allows for informal probate if the total value of your assets is under a certain amount, it may be easier to have a will than a living trust.

Finally, a living will do not deal with assets, but with healthcare and decisions such as whether to donate organs – see the last tip.

While planning ahead for a spouse’s death will be emotionally taxing, it will help ease your mind later. Remember that reaching out means someone will be able to help you at every step, be it a friend or a professional. While the healing journey is yours alone, you can pave an easier path for yourself by planning ahead, and not be being afraid to share your grief and emotions