The shock and grief of losing a spouse are often compounded by confusion or even nasty surprises over finances. Betty Hedrick, a certified financial planner on Mercer Island, said it's vital that couples communicate with each other about money.

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The shock and grief of losing a spouse are often compounded by confusion or even nasty surprises over finances. Betty Hedrick, a certified financial planner on Mercer Island, said it’s vital that couples communicate with each other about money.

She emphasizes two points for the surviving partner:

“Do not let anybody — no matter how many years you have been working with an adviser — talk you into investing life-insurance proceeds into anything but money markets, savings accounts, three-month Treasury bills or three-month CDs.”

Also, don’t immediately pay off your mortgage. While eliminating the debt can be a good thing, the sudden loss of the spouse’s income might prevent the survivor from obtaining another mortgage, or interest rates might not be favorable. “A few more months of house payments are OK, I promise.”

Her other guidelines include:

• Arrange for health insurance to continue without interruption. Contact the company benefits department if the insurance came through the spouse’s work, or talk to the agent if it was an individual plan. Do this within the first 20 days.

• Change your emergency contact information with your employer and all medical providers.

• Get a handle on where immediate income will come from and how much it will be. Contact creditors if any bills will be more than a few weeks late.

• Look through all records. Don’t put this off, and realize your spouse probably used both paper and computer records.

• Gather a team, including a lawyer, certified public accountant, financial planner and even grief counselor. Make sure they know about each other and have your financial information.

“I have a lot of first-hand experience hearing grieving people offer compelling and well-organized arguments for taking actions that are often some of the worst decisions they could make,” Hedrick said. “Then when the grieving process is over and they revert to their normal brain power, they are stuck with the bad decisions.”

• Get complete information on employee benefits; especially important are life insurance and requirements for collecting retirement accounts.

• Call life-insurance companies to file death-benefit claims.

• Ask your lawyer about what to appraise in the estate and how complete and detailed it should be.

• Be prepared to read lots of fine print — you may find bits of death benefits attached to accounts or assets you lost track of.

• Order plenty of death certificates — the funeral company can help with this. Every financial institution and some creditors will demand a court-certified copy.

Still, she said, “There is nothing more important than the final arrangements and notifying others. Many people panic about the finances and later regret not having been more focused on the goodbye part of caring for the deceased.”