Legal Matters

In our last article, ‘When a Spouse Dies – Things You Need to Know, we touched on some basic tasks for you to focus on when you’ve lost a spouse. In this article, we’ve dug a little deeper into which service providers you should contact and what actions are recommended to be taken during this difficult time. While this guide is geared towards what to do when a spouse dies, this advice is also helpful for anyone whose loved one has passed away.

Personal Tasks to Complete:

Start Making Final Arrangements

After you’ve contacted the funeral home or crematorium, it’s time to begin planning the funeral service arrangements. If you don’t know what your loved one’s final wishes were, look to their will or other end-of-life documents for this information. If there were no formal plans, your family members can assist you with this difficult task. Remember that the original will is probably with the family attorney, but perhaps a conformed copy of the will is available. New York State also allows an individual, by a separate document, to declare who has the right to make their funeral arrangements. This often comes into play with non-traditional marriages.

Look Through Personal Belongings

You’ll need to locate vital documents and records. You might find them in an office desk—whether at home or in an offsite office—a filing cabinet, personal safe, or bank safe deposit box (although once a death is reported, the box may be frozen). Items to be looking for are a will, a written estate plan, insurance policies, names of insurance agents, financial planners, accountants, and lawyers all of whom may have the information you’ll need. You’ll also need to find any copies of deeds and lease agreements. Hopefully, your spouse left a list of usernames and passwords for online banking, credit cards, social media accounts, subscription accounts, and more. In addition to immediate access, you’ll need to remove his/her name and or delete the account altogether. You’ll also want to locate a survivor’s instruction letter if your spouse has hopefully written one. This letter may indicate special wishes of the deceased or messages to his/her heirs.

People and Service Providers to Contact:

The Executor of Your Spouse’s Estate

Husbands and wives are usually named executors of their partner’s estate. But if you’re not, you’ll need to contact the person who is named in order to start the probate process and help distribute the assets as laid out in their will. Your estate attorney can begin this process for you and guide you through it. Make sure you have enough certified copies of your spouse’s death certificate. Your funeral director will order a few copies, but the surviving spouse or the estate’s attorney can order more from the Bureau of Vital Statistics ($30 each). You will need these in order to transfer title to various investments or vehicles.

Financial Institutions & Investment Companies

Financial accounts to check:

  • Checking and savings accounts

  • Retirement accounts

  • Pension accounts

  • Loan accounts (i.e., mortgage, auto loans)

  • Investment accounts

  • Income tax returns*

*Note: Any missing financial information can often be found in the prior two years income tax returns.

Tasks to focus on:

  • Take ownership of the accounts

  • Review balances

  • Adjust your budgeting and financial plans, if necessary

  • Update beneficiaries

Insurance Companies

Notify your spouse’s insurance companies about your spouse’s passing. Insurance policies may include: Life Insurance, Home Insurance, Renter’s Insurance, Auto Insurance, Business Insurance, etc.). Learn what benefits may be available to you with regards to life insurance and what needs to be done about updating ownership documents for policies you intend to keep. Ask for claim forms and obtain instructions about the best way to send them to those companies–either online or using hard copies.

Social Security Administration (SSA)

Notify the SSA to stop any Medicare, Medicaid, and other government benefit payments your spouse received. Depending on circumstances, you may be eligible for survivor benefits.

Credit Cards Companies

Locate your spouse’s credit cards and call each one. If your name is also listed on the account, have them remove your spouse and send you a new card with only your name on it. Check if there are balances on the accounts and make a plan to pay them off, and most important, whether there was life insurance covering the outstanding balance.

Physicians & Healthcare Providers

Call all of your spouse’s physicians and any other healthcare professionals that he/she might have been seeing and let them know about the death.

Financial Advisor

Contact your spouse’s financial advisor, if he or she had one, to learn the details of possible 401(k)s, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), life insurance policies, and who the beneficiaries are. You should also inquire about any investment accounts and trusts. If you don’t already have one, consider working with a financial planner, especially if you will have a loss of income due to your spouse’s death. You’ll want to discuss changes in the short term, such as a daily living budget, and long term, including your retirement plan and investment options.

Accountant/Tax Preparer

If you have a CPA or someone who prepares your taxes, let them know of your spouse’s passing. The taxes for your spouse must be filed and paid in the year of his/her death. In addition, your spouse’s estate may also have to file an income tax return for New York State and the Federal Government.

Major Credit Bureaus

Request a copy of your spouse’s credit reports so you’re aware of all debts and any open accounts. The three major bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) can place a notification in the credit report that says “Deceased—do not issue credit,” so new credit isn't taken out in your spouse or partner’s name.

Utility Companies

Contact your utility companies to find out if both of your names are listed on the accounts and either cancel services you won’t be using, or have them put your name only on their records.

Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)

Notifying the DMV that your loved one has passed away helps prevent identity theft by removing your loved one’s name from the agency’s records so that no more mail is sent to them. Also, there is a spousal exemption to transfer one vehicle to you.

Your Spouse’s Current (and former) Employers

Your spouse’s employer should inform you if there are any final paychecks or benefits that you are entitled to such as life insurance policies, pensions, or an old 401(k). Contacting any previous employers may result in the same types of benefits. You’ll also need to notify your employer, too, since the death of a spouse may be a ‘life event’ that could trigger benefit decisions. Also, if applicable, contact you or your spouse’s labor union to see if you qualify for any benefits. If this isn’t something you feel comfortable doing, the estate’s attorney is capable of helping you take care of these matters.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

If your spouse served in the military, you’ll need to contact the VA to cancel payments to your loved one. Also, you may be eligible for survivor’s benefits. The Social Security Administration will contact the VA to notify them of your spouse’s passing, but to receive life insurance and death benefits your spouse was eligible for, you should contact the VA directly,as quickly as possible. If your spouse was active or honorably discharged, you’ll receive funeral and burial benefits.

Other Tasks to Complete

If You Have School-Aged Children

Contact the school’s administration and teachers. They can arrange for your children(s) assignments to be postponed or even canceled. They may also be able to provide your children grief-counseling resources when they return.

If You’re a Parent of a College Student

If you have a child in college, contact the financial aid office. Depending on the school and your financial situation, your child may qualify for more assistance.

Real Property

Remove your spouse’s name from property, not held in joint names, as well as title to your home and car. Change all property titles to your name. This also includes second homes, timeshares, boats, and more.

Internet Tasks

You’ll need to close all of your spouse’s email accounts and social media accounts. You might also want to turn their social media accounts into memorial pages. Cancel any digital subscriptions that you have no use for.

Election Office

Notify your local election office of your spouse’s death.


At the law offices of Ronald J. Axelrod & Associates in Rochester, NY, our practice focuses on Estate Planning. Our compassionate, knowledgeable, and experienced estate administration team will guide you through this difficult process with both legal and practical advice. If you don’t feel comfortable or are unable to do any of the forgoing tasks, please let us know and we can take care of these items for you. If you have any questions or need assistance, call us at (585) 314-7100 or contact us via email at

While you are grieving, the first thing you’ll want to do is determine who you can trust to help you make the important financial and legal decisions that will probably all come at you at the same time. Asking for assistance is important since you may not be emotionally able to make wise long-term decisions by yourself at this time.

Ask for Support and Guidance

Perhaps you have children who can help guide you, provided they don’t have their own personal agenda. Another person who would be helpful is a close friend who may have also recently lost a spouse. The one thing that you should not do is turn to friends or family to help you make legal or financial decisions unless they are professionals or accomplished in those areas. These people should be available to you for their emotional support.

Contact Your Attorney

Certainly, you should make contacting your family lawyer near the top of the list of people you or a family member should contact on your behalf. He or she can give you a short list of immediate decisions that will need to be made until you can get together for a formal meeting after things have settled down.

It is also very important to postpone life changing decisions, make major investments, or large purchases until after you have had time to mourn and are more clear-minded.

Digital Security

A simple but very important matter is to make sure you have usernames and passwords for all of your spouse’s “digital assets” – from banks and financial institutions to social media and government agencies. There are many unscrupulous players out there just waiting to play havoc with your finances by using the deceased’s name to get money, goods and services. A few quick phone calls or emails can help avoid nasty things from happening. Credit cards should also be cancelled, and the post office should be advised.

Death Certificates

It is a simple, but very important matter to order, or have your funeral director order enough certified death certificates. These documents are needed for court filing proceedings, collecting on insurance policies or benefits from an employer.

Consult Trusted Advisors

And a final, but very important point I’d like to make: Well-meaning friends and family members will all want to give you financial or legal advice. Remember, everyone’s situation is different, and so are your family and personal health care issues. Just listen to your trusted advisor, lawyer, and financial advisor. They will have your best interests at heart.

Call on Us

You can feel comfortable calling our office whenever you have questions about what to do after your spouse dies. We understand that this is a difficult time for you and your family and we're here to help make sense of the legal and financial tasks ahead of you. Our experienced, knowledgeable, and compassionate staff can help guide you through the process. Call us today at (585) 203-1020 to discuss your next steps.

Most people experience a tremendous sense of relief when their estate plan is completed. It’s a great feeling to know you have thoughtfully prepared for your future financial, physical, and emotional well-being, as well as that of the people you care about most. Does that mean you can just file your plan away and never think about it again? Absolutely not. Keeping your plan up to date is just as important as having a well-designed plan in the first place. The reason for this can be summed up in a single word: Change.

Change is Inevitable

Your needs will inevitably change as you grow older. So, too, will your health, financial situation, income, and the overall value of your assets. The needs of your loved ones will change as well. After all, people get divorced and remarry; they have children; they buy and sell homes, start businesses, change jobs; and sometimes, they suffer unforeseen financial difficulties like bankruptcy, or have a disease like alcoholism. By having your plan reviewed and updated, you are able to take the changes that are part of life into account, and better protect both you and your loved ones. In addition, the law itself is constantly changing.

When to Review

So, when should have your plan reviewed? Here are some of the situations that likely require an adjustment to your plan:

  1. Getting married

  2. Getting divorced

  3. Having children

  4. You or a loved has been severely injured or has become seriously ill

  5. Receiving an inheritance

  6. Moving to another state

  7. You're concerned about nursing home planning

We recommend that our clients have their plans reviewed every three to five years. And remember, an integral part of your plan that needs reviewing is beneficiary designations on retirement assets (IRA’s and 401k’s) and life insurance.


At Ronald J. Axelrod & Associates, our Estate Planning expertise includes, Wills and Trusts, Estate Administration and Probate, Powers of Attorney preparation, Beneficiary Designation coordination, and more. Call us today at (585) 203-1020 for a complimentary review of your current estate plan.