Picking Up The Pieces When A Spouse Dies

Since retiring, my husband handled inside work and I tackled the yard. Then, on Jan. 2, he died. How to survive was the message I got very fast. What money was coming in and going out? I am alone to make decisions and learn what a lone woman must know. After 50 years of being protected in a marriage, it is a very trying and difficult time.

As this recent widow wrote me, losing a spouse is devastating. The last thing most survivors want to think about is money. But financial affairs become the most pressing matter--a trauma for women who may be at the controls for the first time. Whether or not you're new to the ways of money, collecting all the benefits you're entitled to can be exhausting. But you can make this ordeal easier.

First, obtain several certified copies of your spouse's death certificate from the funeral director. You'll need these to verify your husband's death when you apply for Social Security benefits, retirement funds, and insurance proceeds, among other things. Next, contact your husband's life insurance agent to file a claim. Or send a written request to the insurance company with a copy of the death certificate and policy number.

KEEP RECORDS. You can often download claim forms from an insurer's Web site, but you'll be required to send in the original policy. Photocopy it and request a receipt. If you don't hear from the company in 10 business days, submit a written complaint to the head of the claims department, and request a response within two weeks. If that doesn't work, ask your state's insurance commissioner to investigate. Keep records of all correspondence and phone calls. And don't forget to look for life insurance hidden in other accounts. Ginita Wall, founder of the Women's Institute for Financial Education in San Diego, advises checking with your credit union, credit-card issuers, and auto insurer to see if benefits are available.

You'll also need to contact the human resources department of your husband's employer. Ask about retirement funds, deferred salary, accrued vacation pay, unpaid bonuses, commissions, corporate life insurance, and stock options. Options typically have a 10-year life from the date they're granted. In some cases, options must be exercised within a year of the owner's death. If you're the beneficiary of your husband's retirement funds, they automatically pass to you. Notify banks, brokers, or mutual-fund companies holding your husband's other retirement plans, such as IRAs or Keoghs. Also, change the beneficiary on any policies or accounts that listed your husband. Finally, call the Social Security Administration (800 772-1213). Make an appointment to go to the local office to discuss survivor's benefits. If your husband was working when he died, bring his W-2 forms for the last two years. You'll receive $255 immediately upon your husband's death. You can claim monthly benefits if you're at least 60.

You may want to have a family member or attorney help with your efforts. But even if you think you've rounded up all your husband's assets, you may have missed some. "Try to remember every bank, brokerage house, insurance company, and employer your husband ever had dealings with," recommends Barbara Raasch, partner at Ernst & Young in New York. Once you have pieced together the financial puzzle, resist making big investment decisions in the first six months after your loss. You have to reassess your financial needs, and it's tough to do so while grieving.

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