Immediate Checklist for Widows, Part I

When a Spouse, Partner or Significant Other Dies

What’s this Blog all about? Welcome to my very first post on the Widowed Community Financial Blog (the “Blog”)! The technical setup of this Blog has been 20 months in the making; everything from graphics redesign to taking professional headshots to creating an editorial schedule and then actually starting the writing process. Posts will take place once weekly and impromptu posts may happen periodically. Most posts will address the many financial, tax and legal issues facing a surviving spouse or partner. Not only is the immediate triage-like transition after a spouse’s or partner’s death a concern but long-term financial security is on the minds of many. As the surviving spouse or partner, if you were not the “financial person” in the relationship, this new responsibility can be overwhelming. The goal of this Blog is to provide as much knowledge, wisdom and know-how as possible to protect and manage your wealth over your lifetime.

To keep these posts simple, the term “spouse” is used to refer to one’s spouse, partner or significant other. For gender, instead of using “they” or “he/she” we will use “he”, and for “widows/widowers” we will use “widow” unless a gender-specific issue is discussed.

This inaugural topic – the steps to take within the first 72 hours after a spouse, partner or significant other dies – will be produced in two parts so as not to make any single post too long to read.

Regarding immediate checklists, there are certainly others out there, but this checklist is from the perspective of a financial advisor who has worked with many widows and widowers (collectively the Widowed Community).

Important Reminder: If the surviving partner or significant other cannot legally represent or make decisions for the deceased partner or significant other, some issues and tasks in this checklist cannot be accomplished.

The steps in the Immediate Checklist for Widows assume you and your spouse are in the same vicinity and your spouse has just passed away. If you are not collocated, do not get behind the wheel and attempt to drive to your spouse’s location; have someone drive you. Your emotional state can easily overwhelm your ability to stay aware of your surroundings while behind the wheel, threatening your safety and that of others around you.

Secure your safety. The very first issue to address is your own safety. In such situations as natural disasters, a transportation accident or other unsafe circumstances, the primary concern should be getting to a place where your own safety is assured.

Secure a way to communicate. If your phone is not already on your person, collect your cellphone or smartphone, its charger, cable and a portable battery-operated charger if you have one.  If important phone numbers are not stored in your phone, grab your address book.

Notify emergency services and your immediate support team. In an adverse situation such as an auto accident or natural disaster, contact emergency services first (911 in the US). The 9-1-1 operator should notify all needed agencies such as police, fire department or emergency medical services. Next contact your immediate support team (probably trustworthy friends or family who live within minutes of you). If your family or friends are already on scene, let them contact emergency services or the local police department for you. Don’t be afraid to delegate; they are here to support you.

Support team tasks. If you can put a support team in place, put them in charge of the following tasks (the surviving spouse might be needed to make final decisions about certain issues):

Contact the attending physician or family doctor. If the deceased spouse was under the care of a physician, make sure the physician knows of his death. If not under the care of a physician, inform his primary care physician.

Organ donations. This is a time-sensitive task. If the deceased spouse wished his organs or body donated, certain steps must be taken quickly, usually within a few hours. If medical or emergency personnel are on the scene they may already be asking about your deceased spouse’s wishes. To determine if the deceased spouse made an election or provided instructions regarding organ or body donation, there are several places to look (if no organ donation instructions are found, the surviving spouse and/or immediate family members might want to decide regarding organ donation):

  • Driver’s License. Here in Arizona, the Arizona Donor Registry at 800-447-9477 maintains the donor registry for Arizona drivers. A health care provider can contact them, or you can, to find out if the deceased spouse is on the Registry.
  • Organ donation card, bracelet, necklace or license plate.
  • Medical Directives or Last Will. Medical directives include the Healthcare Power of Attorney and Living Will.
  • Estate planning attorney. If legal documents can’t be located, contact the estate planning attorney.
  • This government website, allows people to register as donors and may point you to the deceased’s decision to make organ donations.

Contact your estate planning attorney and financial advisor. Your attorney might have original estate planning documents such as the deceased spouse’s Last Will which may contain funeral and memorial instructions. Your financial advisor may assist you to ensure sufficient cash is available for short‐term needs.

Military unit. Notify the appropriate military unit if the deceased spouse was an active or reserve member of that unit.

Religious leader. If the deceased spouse was a member of a church, synagogue, mosque or other religious organization, contact their religious leader for funeral ceremony arrangements. The religious leader can mobilize their congregation members to assist with meals, transportation and other services. Preparation for funeral services can take place once the more immediate tasks are complete.

Contact other family members and friends. Any family members or friends who live further away but want to support the surviving spouse should be contacted. They might need time to coordinate and conduct their travel. This is not a funeral or ceremony announcement, ­but a quick notification to other family members and friends to:

  • Let them know what happened and that a local support team is in place.
  • Ask for their support if additional support is needed.
  • Let them know they will be contacted later with funeral or ceremony details once those events are arranged.

Pack a “Go Bag” for the surviving spouse. This is not an emergency preparedness kit in the true sense of the term. However, with all the potential commotion, confusion and shock, it’s easy not to be prepared if heading out of the house to the hospital, police station or anywhere else for an unknown, potentially lengthy, duration. The Go Bag should contain water bottles, prescription medications and feminine hygiene products, light snacks, wallet with money, credit/debit cards, proof of ID, health insurance card, jacket or extra layers based on weather conditions, comfortable shoes, cellphone charger and cable, eye glasses and hearing aids, keys and garage door opener, toothbrush and toothpaste, and any legal paperwork collected up to this point (Last Will, Healthcare Power of Attorney).

  • If the widow does need to leave her home and there are plenty of available support team members, perhaps one or two can stay at the house to take care of children, pets, manage home safety (food left cooking on the stove) and security. Contact other family members and friends and continue searching for and collecting important documents. Keep a written record of calls received (if a home phone still exists!).

Secure firearms. Mainly for safety reasons. Make sure any firearms laying around are locked away.

Secure valuables and prescription medications. Once people start showing up at the residence (or place of business), valuables may start disappearing. Secure money, jewelry, collectibles, firearms (for safety reasons too), and access to online financial accounts (log-in ID and passwords in plain sight at a desk or computer screen). Round up all prescription medications. Those for the deceased spouse can eventually be returned to the pharmacy for proper disposal versus throwing them away or flushing them down a toilet. Make sure the surviving spouse knows you have collected her medications. Don’t forget to check jacket pockets, the car, and all rooms of the house (maybe the spouses slept in different rooms).

Minor children. Children should not be left alone; coordinate with your support team so you can take care of business. Guardianship of minor children should not be an issue unless extenuating circumstances exist like addiction or abuse. If guardianship is an issue, it may be documented in the decedent’s Last Will.

Ok, that’s the first half of the Immediate Checklist for Widows. Stay tuned for the second half next week.

Can’t wait for Part II of the checklist? Want the entire Immediate Checklist for Widows now? Just click on the picture below to take you directly to the Immediate Checklist for Widows page of our Site.

Next Post.  Part II of the Immediate Checklist for Widows.  

Jim Schwartz is a Scottsdale, AZ fee-only financial planner with an expertise and interest in financial planning and education for widows and widowers.  Years of working with and advising widows, widowers, and surviving partners has provided a wealth of experience and knowledge in this complicated financial arena.  He is particularly skilled in his ability to guide his clients through difficult decisions while ensuring the stability of their finances. 

Contact Jim: If you would like to contact Jim directly, without submitting a public comment below, feel free to use the Contact page.

Jim Schwartz, CFP®, RICP®
[email protected]
Blogger, Widowed Community Financial Blog
Twitter, @WidComm, @JimSchwartzCFP

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