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Nine steps for the surviving spouse to consider

Upon the loss of their loved one, surviving spouses shouldn't be rushed into any decisions. For many, particularly those who have not been the chief financial-decision maker in the household, professional financial counseling may be a comfort. But be sure to carefully screen financial advisers before agreeing to work with them.

When ready to start sifting through the financial aspects, consider these important steps:

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1. Gather important documents.

You'll probably need the following documents right away:

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Will and any trusts; insurance policies; death certificate (get 10 to 25 copies); Social Security numbers; marriage license; birth certificates for your children; financial statements for IRAs, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, and company-sponsored retirement plans; company benefits booklet, military discharge papers.

2. Collect life insurance benefits.

Most insurers will cut you a check relatively quickly after the death of a loved one. You will need to call your insurance company and let it know what has happened. Don't feel compelled to invest this money immediately. Most insurance companies will let you keep the proceeds from a life insurance policy in a cash account until you have a plan for investing it.

If you know your loved one had a life insurance policy, but you can't find it, contact the American Council of Life Insurers - http://www.acli.com - which offers guidance in tracing missing policies.

3. Contact the deceased's employer.

Many companies make every attempt to help the families of their employees after a death. They may cut you a check right away for wages owed, vacation pay, sick pay, and life insurance benefits. If the death was the result of an accident on company time, there may also be accidental death and dismemberment benefits.

Contact a human resources representative of the company for help with retirement plans. A surviving spouse will be able to roll over money from the deceased spouse's retirement plan into his or her own IRA. In most cases that will make sense, but if you are considerably younger than your spouse, you may want to keep the assets in your spouse's retirement plan. That may allow you to tap into those assets at a younger age without penalty.

Talk to your HR rep about what happens to your insurance benefits. Most important is health insurance for the family. Company policies differ on what benefits may be available, but most people will be eligible for COBRA coverage - essentially, an extension of the employee's health insurance policy - for 18 months.

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Typically, if an employee has vested stock options with a company, there is a window of time in which the family must exercise them. You may want to consult a financial professional to help you think through your alternatives.

4. Make sure you have sufficient cash reserves on hand.

One of the biggest concerns immediately after a death in the family is making sure the survivors have enough cash to meet their current expenses as well as funeral costs. You may want to take part of your life insurance proceeds or other death benefits and increase your cash reserves. Try to have at least six months' worth of living expenses covered in a money market account or another very liquid account. This will help ensure that you are not rushed into making other major financial decisions right away.

5. Apply for Social Security benefits.

Surviving families with children younger than age 18 may be eligible for benefits. You should contact your local Social Security office to apply. You can also learn more about these benefits at http://www.ssa.gov/ or by calling 800-772-1213. As a widow or widower, you may be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 60.

6. Don't overlook other sources of death benefits.

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Credit-card holders may be eligible for death benefits and/or accidental death and dismemberment benefits. If you've lost a family member in a plane crash, the airline may pay relief funds.

Military veterans can be buried for free in one of the national cemeteries. The Veterans Affairs Department will provide a flag for the memorial service and a headstone for the grave. You may also be eligible for several hundred dollars to help with burial expenses. For more information go to http://www.va.gov/

7. Start to settle the estate.

Once you've located the will, contact an estate attorney to help you settle the estate. The will and/or trust will indicate who is the executor of the estate. That person will handle the administrative responsibilities of the estate, so you need to contact him or her right away. If your loved one had a safe-deposit box, you should have the executor of the estate go with you to take an inventory of its contents.

You'll also need to file an estate-tax return and a final income-tax return. The estate-tax return must be filed within nine months from the date of death. You can value the assets in the estate as of the date of death or six months after death (if you haven't disposed of the assets).

8. Handle other miscellaneous details.

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Eventually, you'll need to take care of other issues, such as retitling ownership of the house, car, safe-deposit box, brokerage accounts, credit cards, bank accounts and other assets. You will need to write a letter to each entity to request a change in ownership, and enclose a death certificate.

If you have children in college, you should contact the school's financial-aid department to see if your children are eligible for any additional financial assistance due to a change in circumstances.

9. Consider creating a lasting memorial.

One of the most healing experiences for survivors is to find a way to honor the people they've lost. Whether it's through a brick paver in a memorial walkway, a scholarship in the name of your loved one at his or her alma mater, or a donation to a favorite charity, creating a tangible remembrance is an important part of paying tribute to those who have blessed our lives.

Sue Stevens is director of financial planning for Morningstar Associates LLC.


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