The death of a spouse is devastating but also a...

The death of a spouse is devastating but also a key financial moment. Experts advise starting with a simple to-do list. Credit: iStock

What do you do when your spouse dies and suddenly you're flying solo?

"While the death of a spouse is emotionally devastating, it is also a key financial moment," says Benjamin Sullivan, a certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Scarsdale.

Despite your grief, there is much to do.

Get organized: Collect documents like your spouse's will, death certificate, and life insurance policies. Inventory their financial assets and accounts, including bank, brokerage, retirement and real estate. "It's easy for accounts to slip through the cracks," says Charlie Massimo, founder of CJM Wealth Management in Deer Park. Check their safe-deposit box for these documents. Request claims paperwork for insurance policies and annuities. Notify Social Security and past employers.

Attend to legal issues: Inheritance can be complex, even for small estates. Consider hiring an estate and probate lawyer. Update legal documents. Generally, you'll need new financial and health care powers of attorney, for example.

Create your new financial plan: Do a simple balance sheet listing what you own and owe, your monthly bills and living expenses, says Rocco Carriero, an Ameriprise private wealth adviser in Southampton. Are there any debts on joint credit cards? "Some creditors may write off debt acquired by a deceased customer, but this is not the case if a co-applicant is on the account," says Howard Dvorkin, founder of in Fort Lauderdale.

This is just the beginning of the to-do list. But, says Carriero, "Don't be rushed or pressured into anything during this difficult time which makes you lose sleep at night. Take your time making decisions."

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