Losing a spouse or a partner often means losing the person that you relied on the most, and on top of that, you're dealing with all sorts of issues you've never had to consider before. Probate? Affidavits? Funeral arrangements?
It's no wonder that so many widows are left thinking, "My husband died. What do I do now?"
Phase 1: Take Care of Yourself First
You know the old saying — you have to put on your own oxygen mask first before you can help others with theirs.
In this situation, you need to take care of yourself. It's going to be very easy to worry about everyone else, especially if that's how you usually react in times of crisis, but you need to carve out time for yourself.
If you don’t, then you can make all of this harder and be less useful to the people you want to be around for. You first, others second — it’s okay to be selfish sometimes.
You may feel alone or don’t want to be a burden, but there are people out there who are eager to help you. It might be your adult children, other family members, or a close friend.
Whoever comes to mind first, reach out to them and tell them that you need help. Be honest. They may be able to take care of some practical issues or just be available if you need someone to talk to. Whatever you do — don’t isolate yourself during this time.
Remember you aren’t alone, ever.
Pay Attention to Your Physical Needs
It's very easy to allow your own needs to take a backseat during times of crisis, so you may need to make a conscious effort to take care of yourself.
Make sure you're eating, even if you don't have much of an appetite. Drink plenty of water and try to get outside each day, even if it's only for a few minutes.
Make sure you're taking your medication as prescribed and try to get a healthy amount of sleep, too. If you're having difficulty sleeping, speak with your doctor as soon as you're able. They may be able to help.
And if you can, force yourself to smile a bit too — even if you don’t feel like it, and if only for something as small as something you notice on a walk, or for the memories you’re thankful to have.
Remember that Practical Tasks May Feel Overwhelming
Grief affects everyone differently. It may be the case that you are unable to do even the most basic of tasks. Give yourself some time to work through the process. Don't be afraid to reach out for help, and don't feel bad about outsourcing some of your tasks for a while.
If having someone else clean your house or deliver your meals makes you feel better, don't feel guilty about it. This is a natural part of the grieving process, and it will get better with time.
Don't Make Major Decisions, If Possible
Now is not the time to make major, life-changing decisions. Your life may feel in flux; more change is not what you need. Instead, there will be time later for you to make the big decisions, and you're more likely to have a clear head when your grief isn't so fresh.
Phase 2: Plan the Funeral and Start Taking Action
When someone passes away, it unfortunately starts a clock on a variety of responsibilities the family members have to take care of, including planning the funeral, acquiring the death certificate, petitioning the probate court, and more.
For a simple step-by-step breakdown, our What to Do When Someone Dies checklist has helped thousands of people through this process.
And remember — you can always ask for help. You can even email us with any questions on probate and what you have to do with the courts/government at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re here to help.
Contact Friends, Family, and Work
You may want to recruit close family members or friends to notify friends or extended family of your husband's death. When you've contacted everyone who needs to be told personally of your husband's passing, it may make sense to make a post on social media. However, don't feel rushed to post on social media before you're comfortable. It’s your call, and you don’t owe anyone anything.
You should also contact your husband's job and inform them of what has happened. Even if your husband was retired, you may want to call his previous place of employment to get information on any retirement funds he might have had with the company.
This is all part of figuring out what assets are uniquely his and aren’t owned jointly by the two of you. For more on that, read our guide on probate assets.
Or if probate is entirely new to you, then our what is probate guide will walk you through everything you need to do legally with your husband’s belongings.
Make funeral arrangements
You may still be deep in mourning when you have to make funeral arrangements, and while it might be tempting to choose the higher-end options, try to keep your budget in mind.
Bring a friend who will be more objective if you're concerned about overspending, and you should also check if your husband had a reserved cemetery plot at a church or qualifies for any funeral benefits assistance from the VA if they were in the military.
Order certified copies of the death certificate
This is easiest to do through the funeral home. You'll want at least a dozen copies since you'll need a certified copy each time you claim benefits (such as life insurance and bank accounts). If you need additional copies later, you can order them through your county or state's vital records office.
Locate your spouse or partner's will
If you don't immediately know where your husband's will is, don't panic. Instead, check your home (or a safe deposit box, if that's where you keep valuables) to try to locate a copy. If a lawyer helped you draw up the document, they will have a copy of the will. If your husband’s will listed someone else besides you as the executor, they should be your go-to person to help with any responsibilities.
What if your husband died without a will?
If your husband did not have a will, then their estate will go through probate according to local intestacy laws. These are just the laws that dictate what happens to someone's stuff when they pass, and the specific rules change by state. They will all still involve petitioning the probate court or bypassing probate through affidavit, though.
Gather financial records & sensitive documents
Pull together as many financial records as you can, including bank account information, recent tax returns, and copies of your bills. Having this information on hand will make it easier to ensure that all your financial bases are covered.
If all of this feels like a LOT, and you’re sitting here thinking: “holy cow there are all these terms and things I have to do but I don’t really know exactly what that means or what I have to do.”
DON’T worry! It is a lot, but you’ll get through this, and we broke down EVERYTHING on the probate side into manageable steps in this guide: What is Probate? A Beginner’s Guide
Read it — we promise it will help.
Phase 3: Begin Probate & Keep Moving
Like we said before, the funeral is just the beginning of a long list of tasks and to-dos you will need to do on behalf of your husband — especially if you act as the personal representative or executrix.
Here are some of those:
Probate is the process where a court authenticates your husband's will and affirms the named executor or executrix (this may very well be you). The executor is then responsible for settling debts and distributing property as stated in the will. Most states do not require a lawyer for the probate process, although you may want one in particularly complicated situations.
An uncomplicated probate may take less than a year to settle. However, a complicated situation, or one in which there is no will in place, could very well take years to fully settle.
Contact Your Bank or Financial Institution
You will need to notify any financial institutions of your husband's death, but you’ll likely need a death certificate and your letters of administration or letters testamentary to do this, which are basically just official court documents that prove you can access your husband’s sensitive accounts and information.
Also — don't shift any money around at this time, as it could cause issues with probate.
Close Credit Reports
Contact the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to have your husband's credit report sealed. This way, no one can fraudulently open credit lines in his name.
Get Legal, Tax, and Financial Advice
Remember, there are professionals who can assist you with this whole process. You may want to consult with a lawyer, a financial advisor, or a CPA. At the very least, you should speak with your accountant to determine the tax ramifications of your new situation.
Unfortunately, it's often expensive to hire these advisors. Families often spend an average of $14,000 on probate, and that's on the low end. If you have the means, though, it could be money well-spent. It's also worth noting that the money you spend to help settle your husband's estate will come from the estate itself (all the stuff that is owned separately by him) — not your personal bank account.
But hiring professional help isn’t always necessary, and depending on your situation it may make more sense to just do it yourself.
DIY estate settlement platforms, like Atticus (that’s us!), will walk you through the process of settling your spouse's estate. We give you a step-by-step process to follow and support you every step of the way. And if you do need to consult a local advisor, like a lawyer, Atticus offers robust reporting that will save you time and, potentially, hours billed.
Can I collect my husband's Social Security?
As long as your husband paid into the Social Security system and was entitled to receive benefits, you should be eligible for some amount of survivor benefits. Contact your local Social Security office to determine the specific benefits you're entitled to.
Do I have to wait until after probate to receive any life insurance?
Typically not, as long as you're listed as the beneficiary on the life insurance policy. Since the money goes directly to the beneficiary, it's not included in the estate as a probate asset.
For more on what assets are subject to probate court and which ones aren’t when someone dies, go here.
Am I responsible for my husband's debts?
It depends. If it's joint debt (with both your names on it), then you are probably responsible for it. If the debt was only in your husband's name, you may or may not be responsible, based on your local probate laws.
What if my husband didn't have a will?
The lack of a will automatically makes the settlement of your husband's estate more complicated. The estate will need to go into probate, and a judge will be required to make many of the decisions that would otherwise be stated in the will. The estate will eventually be settled, but you should expect the time spent in probate to be substantially longer. This may be a situation where it makes sense to consult a local lawyer or at least use a platform like Atticus.
Am I entitled to my husband's retirement accounts?
Yes, if you are named as the beneficiary. However, if you aren't named on the account, things become more complicated, and the answer to your question may have to wait until probate.
You've got this.
When your spouse dies, your life changes dramatically. This is a new chapter, so make sure you ask for help if you need it and take care of yourself and any issues requiring immediate attention, like funeral planning. The rest can wait until you've had some time to heal.
Wishing you the best of luck.