What to Review and Check When Your Spouse Dies

By Jennifer Sawday, Esq.

If you are the surviving spouse in California and your spouse has just passed away, you will have a few matters to attend to.

After a death certificate has been issued, here are a few of the things that you will need to take care of in a timely fashion.

  1. Identify that all of your financial assets are already either vested in a living trust, are held jointly or you are the named payable on death beneficiary. This means that for bank accounts, at some point, and after you have received the death certificate, you will need to contact all financial institutions where your spouse had accounts and inform them of his or her passing. The financial institution will want a copy of the death certificate and then will assist you with either transferring the account into your name or updating the account registration to report your spouse’s passing. At the end of the day for every financial account, you need to make sure you can access the account and then ensure that if you pass away, that account has a place to go after. It needs to have the payable on death beneficiary updated or be vested in your living trust. If you are handling a retirement account at a financial institution, you will want those retirement accounts to have updated payable on death beneficiaries once you have completed the spousal rollover/inherited IRA process. I know this seems daunting, but start with the largest account first and work your way down to smaller accounts at each financial institution. If a financial institution will not allow you access to account either because it is in your spouse’s name alone or there is no payable on death beneficiary on file, then you will need to handle some title clearing – it might be a probate, a spousal property petition or a small estate affidavit. Which procedure can be used depends on whether there is a will, trust and also how much is in that particular account. You should consult with an attorney that handles estate planning and trust administration to see what is the best procedure to assist with these difficult transfers.
  2. Identify that all of your real estate or real property assets are in a trust. If you and your spouse owned a home as joint tenants with right of survivorship or community with right of survivorship, you will want to record an affidavit of death of joint tenant or community property interest with the county recorder where the property sits. Then you will want to set up a living trust so that when you pass this property is not in probate that time. If the home was vested in a trust at the death of the first spouse, please check in with an estate planning and trust administration attorney to see what you need to do as a result of your spouse’s passing in connection with the existing trust. Further, for all home and other real estate, the county assessor’s office has required reporting for a death of a property owner. These forms are available at the assessor’s websites or can be handled by your estate planning and trust administration attorney if you retain them to assist with this process.
  3. Ensure that all vehicles have updated registration to reflect owners that remain living. This is an easy one, but just a hassle. Contact your insurance company to update the insured for your vehicles and go to the DMV or Auto Club to ensure that title is clear.
  4. Then refresh your existing estate planning documents or get new ones in place. You want to make sure that your durable power of attorney and advance health care directives name other people to make financial or medical decisions for you. If your deceased spouse is named first, then the secondary agents will need to explain that your spouse has passed over and over again.
  5. Cancel any credit cards in your spouse’s name. You don’t want to have to fight fraudulent charges later!

It is overwhelming, but taking these tasks one day at a time will help. Seeing your estate planning and trust administration attorney can help you prioritize what needs to be done first and consider us a resource for big and little problems. I always tell my surviving spouses that is easier for you to fix a problem then to leave it for your children later on.

Jennifer is an estate planning attorney in Long Beach, CA. She handles pre- and post-death administration for clients who serve as personal representatives, executors, and trustees for trusts and estates.