How to Prepare for the Death of a Spouse

Marriage takes teamwork and each of us comes to the table with different skill sets and plays different roles to make it work. If something were to happen to one in the relationship, how would the other do that job? What steps can we take in preparing for the death of a loved one?

I frequently think about this in my personal life. What should I do now to be prepared if my husband suddenly passed away? I’ve been asking my husband for some time to create a household manual. If something were to happen to you, I say, I’d never know how to adjust the sprinklers, alarm, or heater again.

By thinking this way, I gain a deeper appreciation for those unnoticed things that he does for me—and I think it’s what makes me a better planner. The death of a spouse can be very emotional, so creating a widow checklist and assembling the information will prepare you to manage the difficult times by decreasing the stress of decision-making under duress.

The Dangers of Failing to Prepare

Since I help many widows and widowers in my practice, I see the consequences of not preparing for this inevitability. And it can often be very dramatic, because dealing with the grief is overwhelming.

The world doesn’t stop working because of tragedy, and many widows and widowers struggle to learn about their finances, which is only amplified by the emotion. What’s hard is that it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s why I always recommend that couples come to meetings with me together, so that they both are comfortable not just with the plan, but with what they need to do for the times in which life inevitably happens to us.
But I see that more people than just my clients need help in preparations, so below I’ve provided a financial preparation checklist for couples. I encourage you to work on it together.

A Checklist for Widows

Know who your trusted professionals are, including your:

  • Financial Planner
  • CPA
  • Estate Planning Attorney
  • Insurance Agents
  • HR contact, if you are employed
  • Attend meetings together with your Financial Planner, CPA, Estate Planning Attorney, and Insurance Agents. Both spouses should be involved and comfortable with these professionals.
  • Create a net worth statement listing out all of your assets and liabilities so you have a clear snapshot, including:
    o Assets
     Property
     Bank accounts
     Retirement accounts, etc.
     Investment accounts, etc.
    o Liabilities
     Mortgage
     Credit cards
     Student loans, etc.
  • Have a current estate plan in place. This includes
    o Wills
    o Power of Attorneys
    o Advance Health Care Directives
    o And possibly Living Wills and a Trust
  •  For non-retirement accounts that are not titled jointly (perhaps they are separate property) and not titled to a trust, consider adding Transfer on Death (TOD) or Payable on Death (POD) so the surviving spouse has immediate access.
  • Communicate what you want to happen when you pass. Would you like a funeral or memorial service? How would you like to arrange for disposal of your remains? Would you like an obituary to be published?
  • Confirm beneficiary designations on life insurance, retirement plans, and annuities.
  • Know each other’s passwords. My husband decided to set up LastPass. I was slow to adopt it but now can’t imagine not using it.
  • Understand what insurance you have in place. This includes:
    o Health insurance
    o Life insurance
    o Disability insurance
    o Long-term care insurance
    o Property and casualty insurance

Know all sources of income:
o Employment
o Pension
o VA
o Social security and others (such as rental property), etc.

  • Understand your budget – what bills are due and when.
  • Know where all important documents are stored, whether it be in the cloud, on a flash drive, or on paper. Keep them organized and secure.
  • It’s not as common anymore to have a safe deposit box but if you do, know where the key is, box number, institution, and whose name it’s registered in.
  • If you have a safe in your home, learn the combination.
  • Write down the contact information for anyone who should be notified of your death, such as family and friends, but also your doctor, dentist, hairdresser, etc.

Contact EP Wealth Advisors for Assistance

Some aspects of this financial-preparation checklist can be complicated or cumbersome, so if you have questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to me and my colleagues at EP Wealth Advisors directly. If you have lost your spouse and there is something you were grateful to have that I missed on this checklist, I would also love to hear from you. You may also be interested in exploring services such as Estate Planning, Life Transition Planning, and Financial Planning. From preparing you to meet life’s challenges, to helping secure your financial future, we’re here to help!

Disclosure: Our review and recommendations are limited to and in association with financial planning. The information referenced here should not be considered a comprehensive analysis. Rather, it is intended to serve as a tool containing general information that should assist you in the development of subsequent discussions with the appropriate professionals. EP Wealth Advisors (“EPWA”) makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy, timeliness, suitability, completeness, or relevance of any of the information represented. Working with a qualified advisor and/or financial planner is no guarantee of investment success and does not ensure that a client or prospective client will experience a higher level of performance or results.


Laura R. Knolle, MS, CFP® is a Vice President with EP Wealth Advisors. In her role with the firm, she specializes in working with clients to bring together all the pieces of their financial lives. Her expertise includes every aspect of financial planning from retirement planning to estate planning and cash flow management to tax planning. Laura is passionate about client education. She believes deeply that knowledge is true power and thus spends a great deal of time educating clients about their situation and their choices. Bringing all professionals to the table, Laura is collaborative in her approach to ensuring that clients have a team working in concert for their best interests. Laura has been in the financial services industry for more than 10 years. She graduated with honors from Michigan State University with a B.A. in Finance, and from Golden Gate University with an M.S. in Financial Planning and Taxation, with an emphasis in Estate Planning. She is an active member of the Financial Planning Association. She heads up a study group for local professionals, and is also a volunteer bookkeeper for senior citizens through the Diablo Valley Foundation for Aging. As an experienced planner, Laura has provided expert commentary on a number of financial-related topics for publications such as The Fiscal Times, MarketWatch, MORE magazine and Forbes. Laura is a new mother and spends her time lavishing son Johnny Ray with love. She has a passion for fitness, nutrition and traveling. She also enjoys hiking with her husband John and their two dogs, biking, boot camp and lifting weights. Her love of travel extends well beyond that of a two week vacation, as Laura has had the opportunity to live and work abroad in London, England and Sydney, Australia.

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