Divorce or Loss of a Spouse

If you've just lost your partner, make sure you don't lose your safety net, too.

Whether through death or divorce, suddenly becoming single will probably hit you very hard emotionally. While it can be difficult to focus on seemingly mundane issues, such as health insurance or finances, it's very important that you act quickly to protect your future security.

When you realize that just one health crisis can quickly bankrupt a family, you'll understand why it's important that you maintain continuous health coverage. So if your deceased or divorced spouse was the health insurance policyholder, please review the following information carefully and take action as soon as you're able.

This Action Plan is intended to help you handle a challenging time - and hopefully avoid a few missteps along the way. Please be aware that this is an overview, not a comprehensive blueprint covering every situation.

First Steps

  1. Gather documents:
    • 12 or more certified copies of death certificate
    • Birth certificates and Social Security Numbers for spouse and dependents
    • Original Wills and Insurance policies
  2. Contact spouse's employer:
    Find out which financial benefits should be transferred to you, children or other beneficiaries. Ask about:
    • Health Spending Accounts
    • Life and/or Disability Insurance
    • Pension
    • 401(k)
    • Cash Balance Plan, Profit Sharing or Stock Bonus Plans
    • Paid Time Off
  3. Investigate health insurance:
    • Find out when policy ends to avoid gaps in coverage
    • If insurance is employer-sponsored, find out your eligibility for COBRA
    • Get a letter from employer certifying coverage, including coverage start and end dates

Next Steps

  1. Investigate health plan options:
    • Continuing spouse's coverage through COBRA
    • Begin coverage through your employer (life status changes usually qualify for enrollment at any time)
    • Explore individual insurance
    • If approaching 65, or disabled, check your Medicare eligibility
  2. Take control of your finances
    • Create a budget and spending plan reflecting reduced income
    • Review automatic investment contributions
    • Have bank release joint funds to you, or open account in your name
    • Check for assistance programs at aarp.org/quicklink


Finish Up

  1. Secure new coverage promptly to avoid a gap in coverage:
    A life-changing event such as death of a spouse or divorce creates a special period when you can enroll in a plan through the Health Insurance Marketplace, established by the Affordable Care Act. If you delay getting coverage, you may have to wait for the annual enrollment period.
  2. Meet with professionals:
    • Consult an attorney
    • Meet with a professional financial advisor

There's a lot of paperwork to find and file, and many decisions that have to be made following a loss of this kind. Here are some of the details that may make it easier to carry out the recommended steps above:

Finding Official Paperwork

If you do not have your spouse's Social Security Number, call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 or contact your local office - you can find the location by visiting https://secure.ssa.gov/apps6z/FOLO/fo001.jsp

You may need as many as 12 Certified copies of the Death Certificate - get them from your funeral director or county health department

Birth Certificates are available from the state or county public records office where the person was born

You'll need a Marriage Certificate to prove your relationship and eligibility for any benefits - it's on file with the county clerk where the license was issued

If you can't find recent Income Tax returns, fill out IRS form 4506 (Request for Copy or Transcript of Tax Form) and attach proof of authorization to act on behalf of your spouse, such as a letter from the probate court or signed Power of Attorney

You'll need Military Discharge papers (if applicable) to prove eligibility for any benefits - if you don't have them, contact the National Personnel Records Center, 9700 Page Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63132-5200, attention branch of military in which the deceased served

You'll need the Original Will to show disposition of assets, which may be at the office of the lawyer who wrote it, or in a safe deposit box - some banks have special procedures, so be prepared with Marriage Certificate, Death Certificate and Social Security Numbers for you and your spouse

Making Decisions About Health Insurance:

  1. It is important that you fully understand your coverage options before deciding which is best for you. Many options may be available, including:
    • COBRA
    • Medicare
    • Private health insurance
    • State-based children's health plan (for dependent children)
  2. To choose the best option for you, consider the following:
    • Which option(s) offer adequate and affordable coverage for my dependents?
    • What are the total costs of coverage, not just the premiums? Consider out-of-pocket expenses such as co-pays, deductibles, and seeing out-of-network providers.
    • What are the prescription costs and benefits under each plan option, especially if you, or covered dependents, have pre-existing or chronic health conditions?
    • Do I qualify for a subsidy if I sign up  for a plan on a Health Insurance Marketplace exchange?


This federal program allows the divorced or widowed spouse to stay on his/her spouse's employee health plan for up to 36 months. Here are some key points to consider:

  • In order to qualify for COBRA, your spouse's company must employ at least 20 people.
  • You must have been covered by your spouse's employee health plan prior to the death or divorce.
  • You will be responsible for the entire premium cost, as your spouse's employer will no longer be required to contribute.
  • You must notify the company's health plan administrator of your intent to use COBRA within 60 days of the death or divorce.
  • COBRA allows you to extend coverage for 36 months after the death or divorce. After that, you will be required to secure your own coverage. (In certain cases, coverage can be extended for an additional 18 months.)
  • COBRA coverage will end if you remarry or secure other coverage.
  • COBRA may be much more expensive than a plan available through the Health Insurance Marketplace, and you would not be able to receive a subsidy to help pay for COBRA plan premiums.

For more information, contact your spouse's HR or benefits department.

Employee health plan
If you are employed at the time of the death or divorce, be sure to consider your company's employee health plan, if they have one. Since your employer will probably contribute to the monthly premiums, this may be the most affordable option.
For more information, contact your HR or benefits department.

Private health insurance
If you are not eligible for COBRA, you will want to consider a plan from a private insurer through the Health Insurance Marketplace. You also can shop for private insurance outside of the Marketplace exchanges, but you cannot receive any subsidy you might qualify for, based on your income, to help pay the premium.
For more information, contact your state's Department of Insurance, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, an insurance broker or Healthcare.gov.


If you're eligible, Medicare offers affordable, comprehensive coverage. Medicare coverage begins at age 65, but you can begin the enrollment process 3 months before your 65th birthday.  The enrollment window remains open through the month of your 65th birthday and for an additional 3 months after your 65th birthday.  If you have a qualified disability, you may be able to enroll earlier.
For more information, visit www.medicare.gov.

State-based children's health programs
Most states offer coverage for uninsured children under age 18.
For more information, contact your state's health department.

Taking Control of Your Finances:

Know your expenses - This is always an important exercise, but it is critical when going through a divorce. View it as an opportunity to establish a basic financial budget for your new life. Whether you are healthy or have a pre-existing condition, it is in your best interest to know - before the divorce is final - what health insurance will cost you. This will be a significant expenditure potentially, and should be part of your negotiations and post-divorce budget.

Accurately value assets - Is the car due for a major service? Does the house need structural work? Make sure you know the near-term expenses before accepting the stated value of durable assets. Also make sure you can bear the costs of upkeep on just one salary.

Pay attention to taxes - The IRS has special rules for many situations, and the ending of a marriage is no exception. Make sure you know whether you should be filing jointly or separately during the last year of marriage - and if any special handling is required.

Get experienced Help - There are always challenges, even in an amicable divorce. Make sure the person you're relying on for advice and guidance is qualified to give it. Consider working with a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) as many are also certified in divorce planning.

Obtain an Objective Opinion - Don't accept your ex-spouse's word when it comes to the value of assets to be divided. You should get professional appraisals of property or investments.

Be Aware of Children's rights - In some states, children in college may demand financial support for tuition. You should be aware of the laws where you live.

Recognize Costs Before Accepting an Asset - Can you afford the mortgage on your own? What happens if you toss in car payments on top of it? Don't accept responsibility for an asset if you cannot manage its cost. You'll probably be happier in the long run.

50/50 split isn't Always Fair - One party may be entitled to more than half - or some other uneven split - of the current marital assets. This is dependent on a variety of factors such as the future earnings potential of each party and the contributions to jointly owned assets. This is a more complex topic than can be covered here, but know that "equal" is not always "fair." Seek legal advice for help.

Unsecured Debt - Debt incurred during your marriage is considered jointly owed. If one spouse agrees to take it on after the divorce and then doesn't pay, the debt is still considered jointly owed and the creditor will seek payment from both of you.