top of page

What to Do When Your Spouse Dies

An estate and elder care attorney’s mission is to introduce practicality into one of life’s elemental tragedies. Losing a life-long companion upends every daily routine, every plan and every expectation. Emotional survival breathes the same air as financial survival during the mourning process.

This article is a guide to those first weeks and months.

Estate professionals encourage families to consider establishing pre-arranged or pre-need funeral plans. Setting up funeral and burial arrangements with a funeral home and cemetery prior to one’s passing removes unnecessary stress on loved ones in the immediate hours following a spouse’s death.

Executing an existing plan with a few communications is preferable to exerting precious energy to initiating a funeral plan from scratch.

Pre-need agreements also have Medicaid planning benefits. In the absence of a pre-paid funeral, the surviving spouse should reach out to a funeral home director to review and choose the appropriate options.

There are veterans’ funeral and burial benefits that may be applicable in some cases. Funeral directors will file the death certificate and provide copies to the family, which will be used to collect beneficiary claims and allow for the fulfillment of estate responsibilities.

Setting up an appointment with Social Security is an important step. Social Security will pay a one-time death benefit of $255 to the surviving spouse. Survivor benefits are also available, which are determined by Social Security based on specific criteria, including the decedent’s monthly benefit amount, age of the parties, the existence of dependent children and a range of other factors.

Hopefully, an estate plan was formulated during the marriage. The existence of joint accounts with rights of survivorship or property titled as husband and wife or tenants by the entirety will allow assets to be transferred by operation of law to the surviving spouse without the need for court approval or extensive documentation.

For Qualified Retirement Accounts, life insurance policies and other investment accounts with the surviving spouse named as beneficiary, a copy of the death certificate and claim forms will be required to obtain the asset. Transferring a motor vehicle through DMV to a surviving spouse involves similar documentation.

Searching the New York State comptroller’s database for unclaimed funds may be helpful to locate long-forgotten accounts and uncashed dividend checks.

Should assets belonging to the decedent be titled solely in their name, with no joint account holder nor a named beneficiary, then a probate (Will) or administration (no Will) proceeding may be necessary to obtain a court order to claim those assets.

Probate and Administration proceedings are filed in the county Surrogate’s Court corresponding to the listed residence in the death certificate. Petitions containing names and addresses of heirs and asset values are filed with the court. Some estates take a few weeks and are simple in nature; others with numerous heirs, complex relationships and complicated assets may remain open for much longer.

Balancing the torrent of feelings while completing estate tasks is a shadow that all of us face at some point in our lives.

Alan D. Feller, Esq., is managing partner of The Feller Group, located at 625 Route 6, Mahopac. He can be reached at


bottom of page