The surviving spouse may have to take on new responsibilities, such as managing household finances or returning to work. The loss of a spouse has a wide-ranging impact on the survivor, both emotionally and legally. A handful of legal issues should be addressed when a spouse passes away.
A surviving spouse’s first task is to locate the will. The will names an executor to handle the administrative responsibilities of settling the estate, such as paying final bills, disbursing assets and filing final income tax and estate tax returns. The executor may be the surviving spouse or someone else. If there is no will, the probate court can appoint someone to administer the estate. It is essential to hire an experienced attorney to assist with the probate process.
Even if the decedent and a surviving spouse owned most or all property jointly, legal actions are required to finalize the estate. For example, Iowa law requires that an original last will and testament be filed with the clerk of court, even if there will be no probate of the estate. Title to jointly-owned real estate must be transferred to the survivor. This can be done only through a document filed with the local county recorder. Assets such as investment accounts and life insurance should be transferred to the named beneficiary.
The will isn’t the only document required to settle an estate. Financial documents and information to file claims for insurance and other benefits are also needed, including:
• Death certificate.
• Trust information.
• Abstract of title to real estate.
• Original stock certificates.
• Information on bonds.
• Financial account statements (bank accounts, investments, retirement accounts).
• Insurance policies.
• Vehicle registration and insurance information.
• Appraisals of any tangible personal property that has significant value, such as antiques, artwork or collections.
A surviving spouse should then review his or her own estate plan. The passing of a spouse is a good time to update a last will and testament and to ensure that advance directives (powers of attorney and a living will) are in place. A widow or widower can also assess the remaining assets to plan for strategic gifting or the possibility of needing long-term care.Information provided by Ross Barnett, attorney for Abendroth and Russell Law Firm, 2560 73rd St., Urbandale, 278-0623, www.ARPCLaw.com.