And no, it's not what you think.
While we know it’ll be no picnic, nothing prepares you for losing your spouse or partner. Despite having lost my father and both maternal grandparents at 20 and too many close friends in the last few decades, this grief is on another dimension. I’d had a brief reminder a few months before my husband’s diagnosis when our dog died two years ago. Yes, it was “just a dog”, but there was definitely grief and the accompanying pain. I remember thinking, “Ah yes, it’s been a while”, and acknowledging the process, knowing I’d feel better the following week. (I still miss her, though.)
When you lose a spouse, you lose “your person” - the one you chose, the one who chose you, the one who has your back, the one you text about your latest gaffe (in my case), and the one (again, in my case) you ask to reach for things off the top shelf. To indirectly quote The Widow’s Handbook, you lose your past, present, and future, if only temporarily.
The real blindsider for me wasn’t even all of the above because I suspected it would be as bad as it is. The surprise was that despite my husband’s meticulous planning, I was still besieged by administrative SNAFUs that made me dread getting up in the morning almost as much as his absence did. Opening up my laptop made my stomach churn. Most of the problems were beyond my control and hard to anticipate, so I want to share them because even with terminal illnesses, you never quite know when you’ll join The Club No One Wants To Be In.
Assume the worst — Call me Debbie Downer, but this is a must. Since my husband’s death, many friends have realised their wishes aren’t recorded, or their situations have changed. You may not have ‘all the time in the world’ to make changes, so do it now.
Have a will — even if you don’t think you have much. You might have a pension that passes on, and if you own property, something has to happen to it. Also, check your will regularly to ensure it’s still what you want. For example, has your child been married since your last will? Should the unthinkable happen to them, do you want the inheritance to go to the spouse? Have you left someone in charge who might not be the best person now? If you have a substantial amount, it’s worth coughing up for a lawyer as they ask all the right questions.
Know where things are — When someone dies, there are many things you have to do pretty quickly and mislaid information adds to the stress.
If you have a will, the paperwork is with a lawyer or in the house. Do you know who the lawyer is and how to contact them? Are they even still in business? Can you lay hands on the documents? (An LPA or power of attorney ceases at death, but you might need it before that time, so again, make sure you can locate it.)
Ditto for insurance certificates, ownership proof (house and cars), and mortgage paperwork, all of which might be requested if you need to list any separate assets.
Is there a funeral plan? It’s not the end of the world if you can’t find it, as obviously, your loved one won’t be around to see that you didn’t follow their wishes to the T. However, the funeral plan might include receipts for prepaid services and other items, such as flowers and printing costs.
Share your PINS and passwords— My husband and I laughed at having the same PIN for our phones. We’d used them without collaboration, clearly being too unimaginative to think beyond ‘numbers that aren’t obvious’. Thank feck! You see, no matter how many joint accounts you have, they often require one phone number for two-step verification. (If they allow you to input an alternate number, DO IT.)
Accessing these accounts when you have no PIN is doable but much more time-consuming and stressful. Even though everything was in joint names, M created the bulk of online accounts, meaning that if I had a query, the companies required a death certificate to transfer the account to my name before even answering me. (And don’t assume the death certificate always comes through quickly.)
If your spouse keeps domestic information on a work computer, it might have additional security steps to allow access. Again, know how to get into it or share any house/family documents with another device. If, as mentioned above, your partner set up the account, communication will go to their e-mail address, so make sure you can get in. (Despite four pages of URLs and passwords — bless him — I still had to become an expert hacker!)
Be financially savvy — By this, I don’t mean handling the finances but knowing what you have and who it’s with. My husband was an accountant, so it would have been silly of me to wrestle control of everything, but I knew what was what.
Make sure your address on every account is current. If you moved not long before an illness or death, it’s easy for this to slip through the cracks. Although you can forward mail through the Post Office, most people do that for a year at most. It’s amazing how many companies don’t update their systems despite your instructions, and most new tenants and owners start throwing mail out after a year or so.
If you have a mortgage, know who it’s with, how long it is for, whether it is interest-only, how much it costs you, and whose name it’s in. Importantly, what happens to it when one of you dies? Sometimes, the lender might require proof that you can still afford the payments even on a joint mortgage, so don’t be surprised at their questions.
Did your spouse have a pension? Where is it, and what happens to it now? (Bear in mind that there may be more than one pension fund.)
Similarly, with insurance. Is there a life insurance policy, and what happens now?
Look at your payments — If you’re not the bill payer, peruse your bank statements occasionally. In the days and weeks after a bereavement, the last thing you want is to be panicking over what’s being paid automatically and what isn’t.
First things first — don’t panic. Many things feel urgent, but most can actually wait.
In the UK, the government website tells you what to do when someone dies, (“Tell Us Once”), and if they were in a hospital, there are staff there to direct you, too. In the US, my experience was that the funeral home did much of the “letting people know” admin. In most countries, you can Google “What to do when someone dies” for up-to-date information.
Many companies and financial institutions have a Bereavement office with a dedicated e-mail and the same person at the other end. I found them compassionate and helpful but, more importantly, able to get things done far more quickly than the regular customer service staff could.
Speaking of kindness, don’t be afraid to sound vulnerable; it works wonders and brings out the best in people!
If you’re strapped for cash - removing your partner from phone plans or car insurance might help, although it’ll probably take ‘thirty business days’. Do check that they’ve done that. I was advised to close our phone plan and open another one in my name only. Naively assuming that that was done correctly, it took me three months to realize they’d transferred his phone to the new account and were still charging me the same amount. (This one got sent straight off to the Bereavement department!)
Bank accounts - can be tricky since payments can be made to your spouse/partner or their ‘estate’. I was advised to have M taken off as an active account holder but not to remove his name entirely since a few checks were due. I received one check written out to his estate and had a slight battle to bank it since, technically, there was no account in that name. Check with your bank.
Keep up to date with your taxes - In many US states, if you become delinquent on your property taxes, this is listed publicly and can quickly become more than just a late payment. The local government can issue a ‘lien’ on the property, which unrelated people can then buy. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to pay this lien plus interest, but in worst-case scenarios, this can result in foreclosure. (This is not legal advice, but a quick search on the subject clarifies the danger.)
Money going in and out — If your bills aren’t paid automatically, setting that up until the dust settles might be helpful. In most cases, it’s pretty simple to reverse. Pay attention to what’s coming in in case payments (like US Social Security, if relevant) are still being made. You will eventually have to pay it back, so best not to spend it in the first place. There might also be subscriptions to cancel; if they are on auto-renew, make a note on your calendar to cancel a few days before.
Start filing — There’s a lot of death admin in the months after bereavement, so organization is a must if you want to keep your head from exploding.
File e-mails immediately, and don’t just use your partner’s name. Divide it into ‘banking’, ‘taxes’, ‘car’, ‘house’, and so on, so you’re not wading through everything you’ve ever received.
Ditto paperwork. That pile on the kitchen counter quickly becomes unmanageable, and you run the risk of things being thrown out with the pizza boxes. It only takes a couple of paper folders to keep you straight.
Notebooks are your friend — Even if you do everything on your phone, sometimes you need to write something down while talking to someone. I found my “Death Notebook” a godsend as it was much harder to misplace than single sheets of paper and used envelopes.
Don’t commit anything to memory — Bereavement is a mind-numbing time, even months after the event. You will speak to many people about matters that are completely new to you. What seems crystal clear one day is a blurred memory a day later. If your world is anything like mine, you’ll also have to deal with three Debbies, two Johns, and several Mikes. Write everything down.
Treat it like a job - My late husband was a dual citizen (as am I), therefore, the admin was/is onerous. However, people with more straightforward situations also find the death admin overwhelming. You can’t do it on the fly, and I recommend sitting down in a quiet, organized spot and dedicating chunks of time to it. It’s normal to procrastinate, but there’s a sense of control and achievement when you get things done.
Valuable hint — (I stole this from a friend). Instead of having a To-Do list, which often has uncompleted items at the end of the day, keep a list of all the things you do and call it your Ta-Da list. It’s amazing how much better you’ll feel.
You got this!
Toni Hargis is an author who lives in Surrey.
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