Financial Steps to Take After Losing a Loved One


About the Author

laura r. knolle

true Laura R. Knolle, CFP®, MS

Vice President
Walnut Creek, California


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In my role as a financial advisor who specializes in working with those who have lost a spouse or other loved one, I have helped many families find their footing with the help of a financial plan that allows them to move forward. The sudden loss of a family member can be shattering, but some planning and expert input can alleviate much of the stress that comes with your loss.


Step One: Take Care of Personal Matters

In the first few weeks after the passing, you should allow yourself time to grieve and focus on those most affected. Give priority to personal matters that need to be taken care of first, including the burial or any family discussions that need to occur. You’ll also want to notify any relevant government entities, such as the Social Security Administration or Veterans Administration.

There are two actions I recommend taking early on. First of all, you should create a centralized notebook to keep track of everything. Having a binder with important documents, contact information, etc. in one location can give you the organization you need during this difficult time. Secondly: obtain ten or more copies of the deceased’s death certificate. These are incredibly important when it comes to giving you access to immediate cash through bank accounts or life insurance.


Step Two: Assemble Your Own Financial Team

Your financial situation is likely to be greatly altered by your loss. You will want to talk to professionals that can help you make intelligent decisions related to the future while handling any of the departed's final directives. To this end, I recommend securing the services of an estate planning attorney, a tax professional, a financial advisor, and an insurance agent.

If the deceased already has an estate plan, assets will flow via the directives within, and the attorney can help ensure those instructions are followed. If you don't already have an estate planning attorney, it’s worth finding one to hire on an hourly consulting basis. They can also coordinate with the other members of your team to help with your own life transition planning.

Dealing with death can be an emotionally challenging time, and my clients commonly describe themselves as being in a “brain fog.” Hiring professionals can allow you to focus on your own needs. If you need to, bring a trusted friend or family member with you to any meetings you have during this time; their presence can often allow you to better concentrate on what is being discussed. Ask for a summary email after each meeting to ensure you don’t miss any important details. Consider allowing your professionals to collaborate with one another on your behalf to alleviate you of extra work and increase efficiency.


Step Three: Prepare for the Next Phase

When you’re able, sit down with your financial advisor. The departed may have been the primary financial planner in the home. After all, we all have our strengths, and as the survivor, you might need more direction and input.

Your financial advisor will help you begin by creating a net worth statement that gives you a complete picture. You’ll have a list of all your various assets, such as bank accounts, brokerage accounts, retirement accounts, annuities, and life insurance, as well as any debts, such as mortgages, car loans, and credit cards. In other words, you'll see what you have, what you owe, and what income is available.

Those three sets of numbers are the foundation of your next phase, and the continued input of a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional can help you maximize your assets and get the most out of your future years. The laws around things like retirement accounts are constantly being updated, and a professional can help you anticipate and prepare for these shifts.


The Best Thing You Can Do Is Be Prepared

A lot of families have difficulties talking about death, and that’s natural. Hiring a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and estate planning attorney to plan your estate while you and your loved one are still active and able to make decisions, can make the process much smoother when someone passes. Your financial advisor can have a copy of your full estate plan with all your tax returns and related insurance policies on file, allowing you to confidently move forward after your loss.

On a more personal level, I recommend that couples have a password management system in place that both parties are aware of. Digital assets and online access to accounts will only continue to grow in importance, and centralizing your account information is a small but very important step.

It’s essential to remember that it can take months or even years to settle an estate. Patience, when combined with strong financial planning and guidance from experts, can make the process more pleasant for all parties involved.

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