Stacy Francis is the President and CEO of Francis Financial & founder of Savvy Ladies™, empowering women to achieve financial independence.
There’s so much to think about when you lose a spouse. At first, your to-do list might seem overwhelming, which is why it’s so important to rally your team of trusted professionals who can help you tackle these tasks, giving you some relief.
Even though your mind may constantly be on your spouse—which is totally normal—it’s important to make time to protect your financial future. While hiring a certified financial planner is a great first step, there are other, often-overlooked steps that can help keep your life secure and hassle-free. It’s time to protect your deceased spouse—and by extension, yourself—from identity theft.
The Big Problem Facing Widows Today
According to the Internal Revenue Service, identity thieves steal about 2.5 million identities of deceased Americans every year. They use deceased people’s personal information to open fraudulent credit cards, loans, tax refunds and more. This tactic is called “ghosting.” Identity thieves troll obituaries for deceased individuals who would be prime targets and leave the grieving families to deal with the consequences.
After your spouse dies, there will be a lag time before government entities and other financial institutions update their files, which opens up a window of opportunity for identity thieves to strike. The most effective way to stop identity theft is to prevent it before it even happens.
1. Start With Your Spouse’s Obituary
Ensure that your spouse’s obituary does not include any personal information including their birthday, home address, mother’s maiden name or other common identifiers.
2. Notify Financial Institutions
Call each company and then follow up with a letter containing the death certificate and any other documents they require. Use certified mail with a return receipt for these letters, and keep your own detailed record of whom you contacted and when.
3. Notify Credit Agencies
Follow a similar procedure with credit agencies. Mail a copy of the death certificate through certified mail with a return receipt to each credit bureau. These include Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Be sure to also request that your spouse’s credit report is flagged as “Deceased: Do Not Issue Credit.” This is also often called a “deceased alert.”
4. Order A Copy Of Your Spouse’s Credit Report
A month after your spouse’s death, order a copy of your spouse’s credit reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion by visiting a site like annualcreditreport.com. After several months have passed, do it again to continuously monitor your spouse’s credit for suspicious activity. The report will specify if any credit accounts are still open and need to be closed. Be sure to review all of the accounts. If there are any accounts that you do not recognize, place a fraud alert for free. It will make it more difficult for a would-be thief to open new accounts.
5. Notify The IRS
Send the IRS a copy of your spouse’s death certificate so this government agency can flag the account as deceased. This will help protect against tax fraud.
6. Monitor Snail Mail And Close Email Accounts
If you have access to your spouse’s email account, watch for any odd-looking emails from unfamiliar financial institutions or emails from credit collectors. After a few weeks or months, it’s wise to close your spouse’s email accounts to help protect against identity theft and fraud, but before you cancel the account, be sure to gather all of its contacts to ensure that you have reached out to all desired people regarding your spouse’s passing.
Email accounts are also sources of valuable information about accounts, insurance policies and other financial details that you might not have known, so you may want to archive all email messages before deleting the account. You will then have access to all email, but there will be less risk of theft or fraud.
Also, look out for snail mail statements from banks, credit cards or other companies you do not recognize. Should you find anything suspicious, or receive credit cards or statements that you weren’t expecting, contact the card companies in question, along with the three credit bureaus.
If you do suspect that someone is committing fraud with your spouse’s personal information, there are a few steps to take. Start by filing a report on the government website identitytheft.gov. You can also review the Federal Trade Commission’s guide for additional steps.
If you do become a victim, thankfully, you do not pay for debts racked up by an identity thief, so you can rest easy on that front. But no one wants to face the hassle and time commitment involved in clearing up an incident of identity theft, which is why it’s so important to take these protective steps.
The information provided here is not investment, tax or financial advice. You should consult with a licensed professional for advice concerning your specific situation.