There are things you learn from books and things you discover from life. I recently had a personal experience that drove home several lessons for financial advisors and their clients who lose a spouse or ex-spouse.

Three months ago, I gave birth to my son, Walker, named after my maternal grandfather. Within weeks, my “Pop-pop” passed away suddenly, leaving my 89-year-old grandmother, who’s never lived a day alone.

My mother quickly went into action, moving her mother in with her and my father. She also needed to file for Social Security survivors benefits for my grandmother, who’s been collecting a spousal benefit since she was 62.

Easy, right? Not at all.

Several calls and visits to the local Social Security Administration (SSA) office yielded a slew of inaccurate information (including that the funeral home had not alerted them when it had) and a series of contradictory instructions about necessary documentation.

Based on our experience,  I recommend several ways to prepare and support your grieving clients:  

1. Let them know that they will need to go to their local SSA office to file for Widow's, Widower's or Surviving Divorced Spouse's Benefits.

2. Advise that they make an appointment by calling in advance. While appointments aren’t required, without one, they risk a long wait or having to arrange a return visit if the office becomes backed up or overbooked. They can use their mobile phones for “express check-in” when they arrive at the office.   

3. Help them (or a designated family member) collect the documents needed and answers to questions the SSA will have. I recommend they bring every document (or a copy) to the appointment as a precaution. I also suggest you advise or help them write down the answers to questions (it’s a long list, but they won’t all apply) so they can wrap things up with one visit.

4. Recommend they bring their bank routing and account numbers (a blank check will do)   where they want monthly benefits deposits made.

As you do this, remind your clients that SSA representatives are not financial advisors or experts. While they are well-trained, they are also human. As my mother found out, they can unintentionally provide misinformation.

Finally, let them know that if they experience complications or questionable advice during their application appointment, they can call you or someone in your office to be conferenced in. I’ve even worked with some advisors who have accompanied elderly clients to the SSA office.

People are often emotionally fragile when they’re handling survivors’ benefits. You or someone in your practice who’s well-versed in these benefit applications can ease a significant burden for clients.

Alyson Dorosky, CSSCS, is a Social Security support expert at LifeYield. She works with advisors and their clients to address their thorniest Social Security issues.