What needs to be done upon the death of a spouse?

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Q. What needs to be done upon the death of a spouse?
— Widow

A. There’s a lot to manage, emotions aside, when someone loses a spouse.

A lot will depend on the value and category of assets held by the person who died and the manner in which the assets are held.

Specifically, as the surviving spouse, you will want to contact Social Security for your death benefit of $255, said Catherine Romania, an estate planning attorney with Witman Stadtmauer in Florham Park.

“If your spouse was receiving monthly Social Security payments greater than your payments, you will also want to inquire into converting to survivor’s benefits,” she said. “Speak to a Social Security representative as to your options.”

You can contact Social Security at (800) 772-1213 or find your local office here.

If your spouse was a veteran, you should additionally contact the Office of Veterans Affairs, she said.

Romania said if your spouse is an authorized user on any of your credit cards, you will want to remove your spouse to avoid potential fraud.

Note, though, that some people have found their credit limits change when they remove their spouse from joint accounts.

If your spouse has a separate credit card of their own, you want to transfer any points and then cancel the card, as well as any subscriptions in the name of your spouse, Romania said.

You may also continue to file a joint income tax return with your spouse for the year of death, but thereafter, you will be filing as a single taxpayer, she said.

Most importantly, you need to review your current estate planning documents, including your will, power of attorney, living will and any other documents to ensure they meet your objectives and to determine if any new fiduciaries should be named, she said.

Many spouses hold their assets jointly with rights of survivorship.

“Assets held jointly with rights of survivorship or as tenants-by-the-entirety pass by operation of law,” she said.

In the case of real property, a new deed is not required to reflect ownership in the surviving tenant when property passes by operation of law, she said.

Assets titled as tenants-in-the-entirety, joint tenants with rights of survivorship, with beneficiary designation, paid upon death or transfer upon death designations or held in trust — provided the estate is not the beneficiary — are considered non-probate assets, she said. Non-probate assets pass without involvement by the surrogate.

“Therefore, if the entire estate consists of non-probate assets, the entire estate will pass without the need to qualify as a fiduciary before the local surrogate,’ she said.

Assets held in the decedent’s name alone or held jointly as a tenant-in-common or an asset for which the estate is the named beneficiary are probate assets.

“To transfer probate assets, the decedent’s will must be probated with the surrogate — of the county in which the decedent last resided — and the individual named in the will as executor must be appointed,” she said. “If the decedent had no will, the laws regarding intestacy will apply and the spouse will have priority in being appointed as the administrator of the decedent’s estate.”

Once appointed, as executor or administrator, such person will marshal the assets, pay any debts and distribute the remaining assets to the named beneficiaries, she said.

Most estates consist of both probate and non-probate assets, she said.

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This story was originally published on Sept. 6, 2023.

NJMoneyHelp.com presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.