Articles and Columns

Carissa Giebel column: Handling Estate After Spouse's Death

Feb. 25, 2013 8:28 PM Written by Carissa Giebel

When you lose your spouse, your world changes. This is especially true if your spouse was the one who made most of the financial decisions.

It’s important to remember that there are several steps that must be taken. Most do not need to be done immediately, so it’s OK to take some time to grieve. However, there are a few things that should be done as soon as possible. The deceased may have left some funeral or burial instructions. There may be cemetery plot deeds, mausoleum niches purchased, a prepaid funeral, a funeral trust, Cremation Society membership, etc.

Death certificates can be ordered from the funeral director or other entity, such as the Cremation Society. It’s a good idea to get at least 10 death certificates ordered at this time because it is easier and less expensive than ordering additional copies later.

Within the first couple of weeks, you will want to gather any insurance policies, real estate deeds, bank and investment account statements, retirement account statements, stock and bond certificates, and any other statements for assets held by the deceased or the deceased’s trust. If there was a Last Will, it must be filed with the probate court within 30 days of death. Social Security should also be notified.

If there is a living trust, it may provide for the creation of a family trust upon the death of the first spouse, in which case you should meet with an estate planning attorney for assistance.

Depending on the assets and how they are titled, there may need to be a probate, which is the court process of distributing assets to the beneficiaries named in the Last Will or, if there is no Last Will, to the heirs determined by state statute. If this was a second marriage and there are children from outside the marriage, some assets may be inherited by the children of the deceased spouse.

Any property owned by both spouses as joint tenants with right of survivorship automatically passes to the surviving spouse and will not be subject to probate. However, the deceased spouse’s name will need to be removed from all assets, including real estate. Any property titled in the deceased spouse’s name only, and without a beneficiary named, will likely need to be probated. This is where it can be beneficial to have a marital property agreement in place, assets titled properly, and perhaps a living trust, to avoid a potential hassle and unnecessary costs.

Any assets that have beneficiaries named will be paid out to the named beneficiaries. Each company holding assets will need to be informed of the death and sent a death certificate. Meet with a trusted financial adviser to advise you on the best choices to make with any inherited retirement accounts or life insurance proceeds.

The surviving spouse will want to remove the deceased spouse from any beneficiary designations. The durable power of attorney and health care power of attorney may also need to be updated. If there are no powers of attorney, then get them done as soon as possible.

When in doubt, do not make any financial decisions. Do not try to use any power of attorney, which expires upon death. Do not change any accounts, withdraw funds, cash checks or make any distributions to beneficiaries without consulting a professional for assistance.

Carissa Giebel is an estate planning attorney and partner at Legacy Law Group LLC. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or (920) 560-4651.

Email Us

Green Bay Press Gazette
Estate Planning Survey
Contact Us