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10 Tips to Help Protect Your Spouse

Ease the financial burden on your loved one after your death

old framed photo of husband when he was young and elderly wife in background

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En español | Couples can ease the burden on the surviving partner by discussing key financial matters today. Here are steps to get your affairs in order: 

1. Gather financial papers. Store deeds, passports, insurance policies, estate documents and the latest statements from financial accounts in a fireproof box at home, where survivors can easily find them

2. Make a "must call" list. Compile contact information for your accountant, lawyer and other financial professionals who need to be contacted when a spouse dies.

3. Share passwords. Keep a master list of all usernames and passwords so your spouse can still have access after your death. 

4. Update beneficiaries. Make sure beneficiary designations for your pension, 401(k), IRA, brokerage accounts and life insurance proceeds still reflect your wishes. 

5. Check credit cards. Make sure your name is on the credit card account. In most states, when your spouse dies, you won't be responsible for any debt on a card that's not in your name. But you also won't be able to use it, and will have to reapply for credit in your own name. 

6. Set up advance directives. You both will need health care powers of attorney to designate the person you want to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated. You'll also need to living will that spells out what measure you want the doctor to take to prolong your life. 

7. Designate a money person. Each of you will need a financial power of attorney so you can name a trusted person to take money decisions for you if you're unable to do so. 

8. Review wills and trusts. Do this every few years or when there's a significant change in your life, such as a sizable increase or decrease in your finances. If you don't have a will, get one. 

9. Discuss funeral plans. This can save thousands of dollars by letting the surviving spouse—who may need the money—know it's OK not to choose the most expensive funeral. 

10. Learn how bills are paid. Keep a list of how bills are paid so the survivor doesn't miss a payment or overdraw an account. 

Leslie Milk is lifestyle editor for the monthly Washingtonian magazine.