Dear Reader: I understand your feelings during this stressful time. There's so much to think about and adjust to, and there are a lot of practical issues that have to be handled. However, I caution you to take it slowly. Of course, you have to deal with immediate details, such as getting copies of the death certificate and locating financial and legal documents, but don't rush into any big financial decisions. Grief can muddy your thinking, so give yourself some time.
And realize that you don't have to do everything yourself. Now's the time to reach out. Consult with your estate-planning attorney, executor or trustee, or other trusted advisers. If you have friends or family you can turn to, don't hesitate to ask them for help -- at least for moral support.
Then, with your support system in place, you can start to get a handle on your finances and feel more in control.
START WITH AN OVERVIEW OF WHAT YOU HAVE
The first step is to look at what you own and what you owe. The easiest way to do this is to create a simple net worth statement. Basically, you just need to make two lists.
First, list your assets -- things like your home (the current market value), bank and investment accounts, and retirement savings. Next, list your debts -- things like a mortgage or car loan. Then subtract your debts from your assets.
This will give you a good idea of your general financial situation.
To make it easier on yourself -- and easier to share information with someone who's helping you -- take some time to get organized. Create a simple filing system for things like bank, brokerage and credit card statements, receipts and insurance policies -- anything you may need to refer to periodically.
You might also set up a system for paying bills so you don't miss any due dates. For instance, if you have a computer, using online bill pay through your bank and setting up automatic payments for regularly recurring bills is an excellent way to stay on top of things.
UPDATE INFORMATION ON PERSONAL ACCOUNTS AND PROPERTY
It's also important to contact your banks and credit card companies to change joint loans, accounts and credit cards to your name only. You may have to provide a death certificate to do this.