When an employee’s spouse dies

6 min read

Experiencing the death of a spouse is one of the most difficult things a person can go through. Not only are they suddenly living without the person they love most, every aspect of their life has to be redefined: finances, child care, living situations, and more.

Coworkers and managers can imagine how awful they must feel, and imagine the pain and heartbreak they must be enduring. But often, they do not comprehend the financial, legal, and logistical challenges that accompany the death of a life partner.

By fully understanding what a bereaved spouse is going through, colleagues can offer support that truly helps—and provide needed stability during what may be the most tumultuous time in their life.

Getting through the first days and weeks

The most immediate needs after a loss are caring for children, pets, and the household. Since each daily routine likely involved their spouse, they may need help in taking care of meals, cleaning the house, and other everyday chores and tasks.

Caring colleagues can offer assistance in these areas, and lend their support at a time when a bereaved employee may be overwhelmed, exhausted from grief, and unsure of how to proceed.

Seeking out benefits

If the spouse was financially supporting the family or contributing to the household income in some way, it will be important to find all possible sources of financial support immediately.

Most benefits can be accessed quickly, such as: any life insurance policies, other insurance benefits such as accidental death coverage, benefits from the Social Security Administration, and if their loved one was a military veteran, several kinds of potential benefits from Veterans Affairs.

They’ll also need to locate any non-probate assets, a class of financial accounts that are not required to go through probate, so they can be accessed quickly by a named beneficiary after a loved one’s death.

They include: funds put in a trust, payable-on-death accounts and transfer-on-death property, any property that was owned jointly with rights of survivorship, and property owned in common with a spouse in a community property state.

Depending on how much the surviving spouse knew about their partner’s finances and estate planning, this can take some time to figure out. It may even take professional help, from a lawyer or financial adviser.

Serving as executor

Settling a loved one’s estate is like a part-time job for most bereaved employees. Since a surviving spouse will most likely be the executor of the estate—the person in the family who is legally empowered to act on behalf of the estate and is responsible for leading it through the probate process—it is even more time-consuming and stressful, Empathy’s Cost of Dying Report shows.

For the Cost of Dying Report, Empathy surveyed 1,485 Americans who experienced a recent loss. The findings reveal that bereaved families put in hundreds of hours of labor over 13 months, on average.

A surviving spouse will most likely be the executor of the estate, a time-consuming and stressful job in the months after their partner’s death.

And for executors, 40% found that dealing with financial affairs took much longer than they expected, compared with only 28% of non-executors.

In addition, the Cost of Dying report showed that executors experienced more illness, panic attacks, changes in sleep patterns, and confusion than other bereaved people who did not serve as executor.

In essence, not only are surviving spouses bearing unimaginable pain because of the loss of their partner, they are more likely to suffer health setbacks physically and mentally.

Managing tight finances

Whether or not their spouse left them a financial cushion in the form of benefits or non-probate assets, a bereaved employee will have a lot of bills to pay.

Most will be repaid from the estate’s funds (if there are any), but paying up front and waiting for the estate to be settled to be reimbursed leads many families to dip into savings or go into debt.

The largest bill is typically the funeral, which in the U.S. had a median cost of $7,848 in 2021, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. In some cases funeral homes agree to be paid out of estate funds when they are available, but families may have to cover the bill up front, and be reimbursed later by the estate.

The largest bill is typically the funeral, which in the U.S. had a median cost of $7,848 in 2021.

Families also may need to pay a lawyer during probate (depending on their state’s probate law), as well as other professionals: real estate pros to ready a house for sale, an accountant to prepare tax filings, and so on.

Employees whose spouse left complex finances or did not leave a will—which is the case with 54% of Americans in 2021—may have to wait a long time to be reimbursed, since the estate must be settled (and all debts and taxes paid) before funds can be released.

Thus, employers who offer advances on salary, or financial support via a dedicated fund for no-interest loans, can eliminate a major cause of stress and worry among bereaved employees. The more stable their home life is, the more energy they will have for their career.

Selling a house

A surviving spouse whose household income is now a fraction of what it was may want to move to a more affordable place, or move in with family to make child care easier.

So, there may be a house to sell, or at the very least, a move to pay for.

Dealing with a loved one’s possessions and clearing out their home is one of the most wrenching experiences associated with loss. But for the surviving spouse, who is likely the executor of the estate, that is just the beginning.

The Cost of Dying Report showed that dealing with the house is one of the most stressful and time-consuming tasks after a loss: 50% of executors said it took much longer than expected and 55% said it was more complicated than they thought it would be.

Under the weight of these responsibilities, productivity often suffers, and the employee can feel isolated and alone.

Whether they are preparing a house for sale, shoring up finances, or handling a multitude of smaller everyday tasks, an employee whose spouse has passed away is carrying a heavy load.

Under the weight of these responsibilities, focusing on work—or even maintaining physical and mental health—can be difficult. Understandably, productivity often suffers, and the employee can feel isolated and alone, which only adds more stress to their life.

This self-reinforcing pattern can lead to burnout or turnover, particularly among employees who were previously top performers. However, companies that face the problem head-on, with constructive solutions for support, can provide the stability and help an employee needs to get back on their feet.