This blog addresses only the prioritized and necessary steps to take, when possible, within the first 3 days after a spouse, partner or significant other dies. These necessary steps are assembled into a checklist I call the First 3 Days Checklist. Not everything must be done as soon as possible. A more comprehensive checklist, the New Widow’s Complete Checklist, is also available on this site. It includes this First 3 Days Checklist as well as longer-term issues and lower priority tasks through the entire first year plus several additional checklists, flowcharts and financial tools.
Note: To keep things 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.
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.
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):
Checklist for New Widows – The First 3 Days
1. 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.
2. Organ donations. This is a time-sensitive task. If the deceased spouse wished his organs or body be 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.
- OrganDonor.gov. This government website, organdonor.gov allows people to register as donors and may point you to the deceased’s decision to make organ donations.
3. Other Contacts:
a. 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.
b. Military unit. Notify the appropriate military unit if the deceased spouse was an active or reserve member of that unit.
c. 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.
d. 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.
4. 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, cell phone charger and cable, eyeglasses 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!).
a. Firearms. Mainly for safety reasons. Make sure any firearms laying around are locked away.
b. Valuables and prescription medications. Once people start showing up at the residence (or place of business), valuables may start disappearing. Secure money, jewelry, collectibles, (and firearms), 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).
6. Make sure Minor children are cared for. 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.
7. Make sure pets are cared for. In the ensuing storm of emotion, pets can be overlooked. Make sure they are fed and have water. If they are not managed properly, locate a pet boarding facility to temporarily take care of them. If, for some reason, the surviving spouse is not to take care of a pet for the long-term, the deceased spouse’s Last Will may have instructions on who is to take care of their pet.
8. Business Operations. If the decedent owned, operated or was a key person in a business, contact the business partners or senior management to investigate what it will take to keep the business running if this is a priority and goal.
If a business succession plan exists, put it in action. If not, ask senior management or current employees what tasks or payments need completed to continue business operations. Let employees know who they can turn to for answers and whether the goal is to shut down operations or keep the business running.
9. Gather these documents, items and the information that will be needed in the next 72 hours:
- Last Will of the deceased spouse. May contain more immediate tasks such as organ donation, autopsy, cremation, burial instructions.
- Medical Directives (Healthcare Power of Attorney and Living Will) of the deceased. One of these may contain organ donation, autopsy, cremation or burial instructions.
- Deceased person’s wallet, credit cards, ID, drivers license, phone, computer(s), car and house keys, and garage door opener (you don’t want an unauthorized person to use the deceased’s credit card or have access to the house, car or valuables).
- Birth Certificates for both spouses and their children.
- Social Security cards or numbers for both spouses and their children.
- Marriage certificate or license and divorce decree (from previous marriage).
- Death certificates of any immediate family member who previously passed away.
- Password for the deceased spouse’s computer (desktop, laptop). Some computers use facial recognition instead of a password. In this case, there should be an option to click and use an alternate log-in such as a PIN or password.
- Log-in credentials (User ID, password, PIN, and perhaps answers to security questions) for any online bank or other financial account that is needed in the short-term. If a password is not known, sometimes clicking on Forgot Password (or similar wording) will initiate an email to the deceased spouse’s email which contains a link to reset the password.
- Home security system code. Document this code and consider changing it for safety reasons. Cleaning services, neighbors and others might have the code. It’s best to start with a fresh code.
- If the home has a safe, locate it, the combination, and document the contents.
- Document the User ID and password for the email account(s) owned by the deceased spouse. Some emails like gmail might be set up for Two-Factor Authentication which requires a second layer of protection before allowing the user to log in. This TFA might require a numerical text sent to a cell phone (usually the user’s cellphone) or the use of an authenticator app.
- If death occurred due to a criminal act, malpractice by medical personnel, or mysterious or unknown circumstances, an autopsy may be required or desired.
10. Funeral, mortuary, burial or cremation arrangements. Contact and coordinate with a funeral home, mortuary and religious leader. Depending on the level of pre-planning accomplished around these issues, this task could be very straightforward (most or all decisions already made and documented in a Last Will, Healthcare Power of Attorney or other document) or potentially filled with family disagreements and indecision.
Usually the more pre-planning done, the better for everyone. Pre-planning can get into the details such as preparation of the obituary, where and what type of service, and music selection to play at the funeral or ceremony. If a military burial is an option, contact Veterans Affairs to coordinate. Depending on travel arrangements, need for autopsy and other factors, the funeral might take place within one week of death or it could be delayed for one or more months depending on circumstances (out of country, lengthy autopsy or the availability of family members).
11. Ensure the ability to pay bills. Make sure the surviving spouse has access to the primary checking account, understands the level of cash in the account and knows how to use the checkbook and debit card (some don’t, so don’t assume they do). She should also understand how the checking account gets replenished (Social Security payments, pension payments, automatic distributions from investment accounts).
12. Health Insurance. The important issue is making sure premiums are paid and the coverage is up-to-date. If it’s on autopay, that information is important to know, especially if the payment is made through a credit card that is about to get terminated due to the death. If payments are behind because of turmoil over the last few months, it’s time to catch up on those past due payments.
13. Consider appointments, prescriptions, meetings, pending projects, trips, airfare, hotels. Cancel any pending medical, dental or other appointments. Automatic delivery of prescriptions should be stopped. Any pending projects (repairs, remodel, purchase of an RV, etc.) must be evaluated to determine whether to continue or stop the activity. Upcoming trips that involve airfare, hotel and rental car reservations need to be addressed.
14. Trustee duties. If the deceased spouse was the trustee of a trust, contact the co-trustee. If he was the sole trustee, inform the beneficiaries and attorney providing legal services for the trust.
15. Board of Directors. If the deceased spouse was on a corporate or nonprofit board, inform the chairperson of the board.
16. Safe deposit box. Locate the safe deposit box, if there is one, by contacting banks where the deceased spouse banked. Inventory the contents and collect the Last Will if stored in the box. The bank manager may or may not release other documents and contents to the appropriate person (person listed on the safe deposit box or listed in the Last Will as personal representative). If a safe deposit box does not exist, a home safe might. Ask the surviving spouse for details on the location and combination of the home safe.
17. Car/Truck. Make sure the surviving spouse’s vehicle(s) are in safe driving condition. Check fluid levels, tire pressure, current registration/inspection and auto insurance. Take it for a test drive. Make sure no dashboard caution lights are on.
18. Be on the watch for fraud and attempted exploitation. An obituary or news article can spark the interest of people intent to do harm. Knowing that a new widow is in emotional distress can result in attempts to defraud the widow by claiming that unpaid bills are due, projects were commissioned by the deceased spouse and now need paid, an insurance policy is ready to pay but the last few missed premiums are due first, and so on.
Knowing that a funeral ceremony is scheduled for 10am on the 15th of this month, criminals know the home should be empty. The address is easy to confirm through internet searches and confirmation from neighbors. Robberies do take place during this vulnerable time.
For unpaid items, require an invoice be sent…don’t just send a check or give a credit card number to cover an expense you haven’t confirmed. Ask your attorney or trusted family member to check the validity of the person or company making the claim. Also, it’s good practice to ask your attorney if certain invoices or bills should be paid (maybe the deceased spouse was going through a bankruptcy, or perhaps he was the only person legally liable for certain expenses).
19. Keep a Journal. Over the next year or two, especially in the beginning, you will meet with and talk to many people regarding the death of your spouse. From doctors to funeral directors to utility companies and financial, tax and legal professionals, the amount of information, details, next steps, telephone numbers and appointment dates and times will be overwhelming.
To keep track of this information, especially during times of bereavement, a journal can help tremendously. You may also want to keep a separate journal for personal thoughts and feelings as you go through this journey.
There’s a lot to do in this Immediate Checklist and some items require more time and energy than others. If you focus on the entire list, you will get overwhelmed; focus on one or two items at a time and let other people help you.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2 parts in 2018. It has been combined here to provide an easier and faster experience for visitors.