Financial Help for Widows: Managing Debt, Mortgage & Social Security (2023)

About Debt Help for Widows

Losing a spouse can turn your life upside down. Aside from grief, a major challenge is loss of income. There are many places widows can find financial help – government and nonprofit – including “free money.”

There were more than 11.6 widows in the U.S. in 2021, according to the U.S. Census (there were about 3.5 million widowers), with the median age just under 60. Many of those who’ve lost their partner struggle to pay the bills.

The poverty rate for women-headed households – whether widowed, divorced or single – was 23.4%, as opposed to 11.4% for men. Women more frequently have a lower average income and much higher likelihood of having children to care of.

The financial issues are compounded for widows, many of whom lose much of their income when they lose their spouse. Household income for widows declined an average 37% when their spouse died. Men lose an average 22%. Women of color and those over 65 suffer an even bigger financial impact from widowhood and are more likely to fall below the poverty line.

“Life can suddenly get very expensive,” said Larry Kotlikoff, author of “Get What’s Yours – the Secrets of Maxing Out Your Social Security Benefits.” .

“The surviving spouse has to deal with electricity, food, cars, maintenance and all the other day-to-day living expenses that don’t change, but they’ve only got one income to throw at it.”

There are options, though, that can help widows with financial challenges.

Finding Financial Help for Widows

Widows looking for financial help and free money should start with the basics. Don’t limit yourself to help that’s targeted for widows. Take your financial situation into account and research anything that can make it better, from government benefits to nonprofit debt management. Know the restrictions of programs as well. Some, particularly those for veterans’ spouses, end if you marry again.

Top sources of continuing financial help for widows:

Social Security is the prime benefit available for widows. A surviving spouse can claim whichever is greater, their own benefit or the spouse’s. Because men earn more over a longer period, their benefit often is higher.

If your spouse was still working, check with the employer’s Human Resources department to find out if there was a 401(k) account, life insurance, health savings account or other benefit. HR departments may not contact you if there’s a benefit available, so it’s important to check.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has many benefits for surviving spouses and dependents of veterans. Some have income qualifications or other restrictions. To get a start, visit va.gov/family-member-benefits.

Financial Help for Widows from Family

Family members can be a great source of help, but keep an eye out for the pitfalls.

If a family member offers money, be sure that both you and the giver understand the terms. Most monetary gifts are taxed, even if it’s to help a struggling widow. Loans from family can be a slippery slope even in the best of circumstances.

If an adult child offers money, widows can get up to $15,000 tax-free from a child. If the child is married, the limit is $30,000. Gifts from other family members will be counted as income, and taxed.

If you borrow money from a family member there are no tax implications, but be sure that the repayment terms, including interest if they charge it, are in writing. Do this even if it feels uncomfortable. When both sides understand the terms, future headaches, including different memories of what was said, can be avoided. The paperwork will also help if your taxes are audited – you can prove it was a loan, not a gift.

Family members can also be able to help in ways that aren’t financial, but can still ease the pressure. When people ask, “What can I do to help?” don’t be afraid to be specific. Pre-cooked meals, groceries, baby-sitting help, rides to appointments, help filling out forms or calling government agencies, adopting your pet – there are lots of ways family can contribute. People are often at a loss as to how to help. Let them know.

Online Financial Assistance for Widows

There are many online sources of financial help for widows, from free money, to benefits, to help for the children.

Government Benefits for Widows

Benefits.gov is a place widows looking for government help can start. An online form determines what assistance you qualify for. Benefits include things like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which was formerly known as food stamps; TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), Medicaid and Medicare information; LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program); rental assistance, and more.

Aging.gov has a variety of resources and information for people over 65.

The Social Security Survivor Benefit is paid to a spouse and dependents of someone who paid Social Security taxes through their employment. The amount is based on their income. Funeral homes generally report the death to the Social Security Administration — when you make arrangements with a funeral home, they’ll ask for your spouse’s Social Security number. If you do not receive the benefit, you must report the death to the SSA in person, it can’t be done online.

General Assistance. If your state is one the 25 that offers GA, you may be able to get financial help for immediate needs, like utilities, heat, food or burial costs. Often it’s money you don’t have to pay back. Contact your town or city clerk to see if GA is available and what the restrictions are.

Charities and Organizations for Widows

There are many nonprofit organizations that provide financial help to widows. They can be as close as your local church or be a national foundation you’ll find online. Help may be in the form of a one-time grant for food or rent, or resources and support groups that will help you find your footing, financial and otherwise.

Most organizations, even churches, have a website that spells out how they can help. Don’t discount organizations like the St. Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic Charities or the Salvation Army. Local Hospice organizations also have grief support groups, a good place to talk to people in the same situation who may know of resources.

(Video) Financial Help For Widows | Spouse Pension After Death

National organizations that are specifically designed for widows include the Hope for Widows Foundation, Wings for Widows, Widows Connection and The Sisterhood of Widows.

If you are overwhelmed by debt, the answer may be reaching out to a counselor at a nonprofit credit counseling agency, like InCharge Debt Solutions. Counseling is free, and counselors are required to give you advice that’s in your best interest. Be sure the agency you talk to is accredited by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Be savvy about organizations that may try to take advantage of your situation. The NFCC has tips on how to be sure you’re connecting with a legitimate nonprofit agency.

What Happens to Your Home When Your Spouse Dies?

If you and your spouse co-signed the mortgage, it’s now your responsibility and you must continue to pay it.

If your spouse’s name was on the mortgage, but yours wasn’t, you will likely inherit the house, even if there’s no will. If your spouse’s assets can cover what is owed on the house, the executor may use them to pay off the mortgage.

In any case, if your spouse dies, the lender cannot legally demand the entire amount due. But the mortgage still must be paid. It’s not forgiven in the case of the borrower’s death. If payments aren’t made, the lender can foreclose.

If you are having trouble keeping up with payments, ask the lender if they have a hardship program, or if there’s insurance on the mortgage that can pay off the balance.

Refinancing the mortgage is another option, resulting in a lower monthly payment, but also a longer payoff period.

Widows 62 or older can get a reverse mortgage. This allows you to borrow on the equity of your home – you must owe less than half of its value – and you don’t make payments until it’s sold. When the home is sold, the mortgage, with interest, is paid in full through the sale.

Another option is to sell the house. If there’s enough equity, it may cover what’s owed.

What Happens to Credit Card Debt When Your Spouse Dies?

Who pays on credit card debt when your spouse dies depends on where you live and how you and your spouse managed finances.

If your name was on the credit card account as a co-signer (a joint account), you’re responsible for paying the balance, even if you didn’t use the card. Nonpayment will go on your credit report and have a negative impact on your credit score. It eventually will go to a collection agency.

If your name was on the account as an authorized user, rather than a joint account, you are not responsible for the debt unless you live in a community property state. The debt will have to be paid out of your spouse’s estate, if money is available.

If you live in a community property state – Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin – you may be liable for your deceased spouse’s credit card debt, even if it wasn’t a joint account. Each state handles community property differently, so you may want to consult a lawyer who will help you figure out your financial obligation.

(Video) Reducing Debt and Building Savings: Q&A with a Financial Advisor

Financial Assistance for Widows of Veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Survivors Assistance has information on benefits and services for widows of veterans, and their dependents.

VA benefits for widows include:

  • Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC). A tax-free monthly payment for surviving spouses, children and parents of service members who die in the line of duty or from a service-related injury or illness.
  • CHAMPVA health care. Civilian Health and Medical Program VA covers some health care costs for spouses and dependents of veterans who are disabled, died of disability or died in the line of duty.
  • Two scholarships for spouses and dependents of veterans who died, or were disabled, in the line of duty are Survivor’s and Dependents’ Educational Assistance and the Fry Scholarship. There are a huge variety of other scholarships offered by many organizations. U.S. Veterans Magazine has compiled a list.
  • VA Fiduciary Program. Help for veterans, spouses and dependents who can’t manage their finances because of medical issues or disability.
  • VA-guaranteed home loans. Eligible spouses are guaranteed a low-interest loan through a private lender to buy a home or make repairs.
  • VA Survivors’ Pension. Monthly payments to low-income surviving spouses and unmarried dependents of veterans who served during wartime. There are income and asset requirements.
  • Burial benefits. The VA offers a free burial plot, and services that go with it, to veterans and spouses in one of the many veterans’ cemeteries across the country. The VA also has a burial allowance that reimburses some cost of burial in a non-VA cemetery.
  • Life insurance. The VA has a variety of life insurance programs for veterans, spouses and dependents.
  • Bereavement counseling. Free grief counseling for spouses, children and parents of active military who died while serving.

Private Help for Widows of Veterans

The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) offers retreats, expeditions and survivor seminars around the country and world for grieving members of military members who have died.

The Wounded Warriors Project, an organization that helps disabled veterans, also has assistance and resources for surviving families.

Tips for Widows Dealing with Social Security

Social Security benefits are the financial go-to for widows, dependent children and those who reach retirement age, but getting your benefits can be complicated.

You can receive your own, or your spouse’s, benefit, whichever is higher. If your spouse began receiving Social Security benefits before death, don’t cash the checks if they continue to arrive. You will have to pay it back.

The best way to apply for a survivor’s benefit is to visit a Social Security office in person. Be sure to call ahead for an appointment.

Those applying for benefits must bring the originals – not photocopies — of their spouse’s death certificate, birth certificate, marriage certificate and proof of U.S. citizenship. A photocopy of a W-2 form or self-employment tax return is also required.

Widows can start getting the Social Security survivor’s benefit at 60, but it is reduced by a fraction of a percent for each month before full retirement age of 70.

Widows who qualify for survivor’s benefits and a retirement benefit that’s more than the survivor’s benefit can switch to their own benefit any time between age 62 and 70.

Does Social Security Save Widows?

Since claiming your spouse’s benefits is not easy, author Kotlikoff advises widows who need financial help to make sure to take advantage of other resources as well, and to be prepared.

“Social Security benefits definitely help, but not nearly as much as people would want,” he told InCharge.org. “There are all sorts of gaps in the system and ways you have to deal with them to get what you deserve.”

He said that widows should not put off figuring out what their Social Security benefits will be. The sooner they get a handle on it, the easier it will be to avoid poverty.

(Video) Delaying Social Security by withdrawing from your retirement (IRA/401k/403) to pay the bills.

Widows should also make a lifetime budget plan as early as possible. “Figure out how much you’re going to need to maintain the lifestyle you want to lead and then look at your expected benefits from Social Security, life insurance, retirement plans, pensions – anywhere you expect to get money – and see if that’s going to support it.

People usually underestimate how much they will need. “You can get hurt very badly if you screw this up,” Kotlikoff said.

Widows Financial Problems Get Worse with Age

The combination of a lifetime of working for less money than men and losing work time to raise children is a large factor as to why women receive lower Social Security benefits and 401(k) or company pension plan for retirement savings.

Kotlikoff said that’s why so many widows end up below the poverty line as they get older. A 2021 federal study found that 20% of people 65 or older had incomes of less than $15,000. Another 21% had incomes between $15,000 and $24,999.

Cindy Hounsell, president of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, said some of that can be avoided with communication and proactive financial management. “By the time they get to their 80s, a lot of women are near poverty because they never had the discussion with their husband about, ‘What’s going to happen to me if you’re gone?’” she said.

Since women have a longer life expectancy than men, Hounsell founded WISER to help women plan for a time they will be solely responsible for their finances.

“Odds are that if you’re a woman, you’re going to be going it alone at some point late in life,” she said. “Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t know where the money is, where it’s supposed to be coming from and how to manage money on their own, so when their spouse dies, they don’t know what to do.”

Additional Help for Widows

Financial struggles only compound the stress of dealing with losing a spouse.

Widows can contact a nonprofit credit counseling agency like InCharge Debt Solutions to connect with a counselor who will discuss ways to deal with a new financial situation. Counselors can help create a budget, find ways to reduce expenses and suggest resources that offer assistance for things like housing and utilities.

Nonprofit credit counselors may suggest a debt management plan to help shrink unsecured debt, particularly credit card debt. InCharge Debt Solutions counselors work with creditors to lower interest rates. The program consolidates monthly debt into one fixed payment to the agency, which makes the credit card payments. It takes 3-5 years to complete and the monthly payment includes a $40 fee.

The counselor may also suggest InCharge’s Credit Card Debt Forgiveness program, also called Less Than Full Balance. You pay 50-60% of the credit card balance in fixed payments over 36 months. What’s left after that is forgiven. To qualify, creditors must be on the participating list of creditors, banks, law offices or debt collection agencies; the account must be charged off (you haven’t made a payment in more than 120 days); and the balance must be at least $1,000.

There’s a lot to think about when you lose a spouse. Getting help sorting out your finances could help ease your stress as you figure out your new normal.

FAQs

What is a widow's fund? ›

A widow's allowance is traditionally an allowance of funds or personal property received by a widow after her husband's death to meet her immediate requirements. This financial process is also known as a widower or surviving civil partner's allowance, depending upon the parties involved.

What do you mean by widow? ›

wid·​ow ˈwi-(ˌ)dō : a woman who has lost her spouse or partner by death and usually has not remarried. : grass widow sense 2. : a woman whose spouse or partner leaves her alone or ignores her frequently or for long periods to engage in a usually specified activity. a golf widow.

Does the government give money to widows? ›

Social Security's Widow(er)'s Insurance Benefits are federally funded and administered by the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA). These benefits are paid to the widow or widower of a deceased worker who had earned enough work credits.

Is there a widows allowance? ›

The widow's pension isn't around anymore, but there's now a similar scheme called the Bereavement Support Payment (BSP) in its place. If your civil partner, husband or wife has died, you may be eligible to apply to the benefits scheme to receive a lump sum followed by regular payments for up to 18 months.

How long are you considered a widow? ›

You can only file as a Qualifying Widow or Widower for the two years after the year in which your spouse died. For example: If your spouse died in 2022, you may only qualify as a Qualifying Widow or Widower for 2023 and 2024 as long as you meet the other requirements.

What is the most difficult part of being a widow? ›

What challenges does widowhood bring? As widows move through their own experiences of grief, loss, or trauma after the death of a spouse, they may also face economic insecurity, discrimination, stigmatization, and harmful traditional practices on the basis of their marital status.

How do you survive financially after the death of a spouse? ›

Addressing Immediate Needs: Expenses, Bills, and Filing Insurance Claims After Your Spouse Dies
  1. Evaluate Short-term Income And Expenses. ...
  2. Do These Things Right Away. ...
  3. Notifying Others After Your Spouse Dies. ...
  4. Pay Bills. ...
  5. File Insurance Claims. ...
  6. Begin Settling Your Spouse's Estate. ...
  7. Arrange For Child Care.

Is a widow still considered to be married? ›

Remember, taxpayers whose spouses died during the tax year are considered married for the entire year, provided they did not remarry. The surviving spouse is eligible to file as Married Filing Jointly or Married Filing Separately.

Where does a widow wear her wedding ring? ›

To put it simply, a widow wears her wedding ring on whichever finger she chooses. Wearing a wedding band on your ring finger on your left hand signifies you are married. Technically a widow is no longer married after her partner has passed, nullifying the marriage by law.

Is widow called single or married? ›

A widow is a woman whose spouse has died and who has not married again. If someone is widowed, their spouse dies. More and more young men are widowed by cancer.

What resources are available for widows? ›

Most of the nonprofit organizations, churches and community groups that offer assistance to widows can be found online. They usually offer help on a one-time basis for things like food, housing, clothing, furniture and other basic needs. Some grants are available through private organizations.

How do I apply for widow's Social Security benefits? ›

You can apply for benefits by calling our national toll-free service at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) or visiting your local Social Security office. An appointment is not required, but if you call ahead and schedule one, it may reduce the time you spend waiting to apply.

How much do you get from the government when someone dies? ›

The death benefit under the Québec Pension Plan is a payment of a maximum amount of $2500. It is paid if the deceased contributed sufficiently to the Plan, in accordance with the Act respecting the Québec Pension Plan.

What is a bereavement Grant? ›

Bereavement Support Payment is money that you may be able to claim if your husband, wife, or civil partner died after 6 April 2017. This benefit isn't means-tested, so you can make a claim regardless of your income or whether you're in work.

How much is the average widows benefit? ›

Children in New Jersey have an average monthly Social Security survivors benefit of $1,004
StateYoung widow(er)sChildren
Alaska$976$870
Arizona$1,036$884
Arkansas$919$814
California$999$930
8 more rows
7 Jul 2020

What does a widow get when husband dies? ›

In California, a community property state, the surviving spouse is entitled to at least one-half of any property or wealth accumulated during the marriage (i.e. community property), absent a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement that states otherwise.

When should you stop wearing your wedding ring after death? ›

There is no right time, period. We know widows who took their rings off immediately after the death. We know widows who still wear their rings after thirty years, even after they remarried. As with many things in grief, we encourage you to drop any “shoulds” you might be feeling (self-imposed or from others).

Do you meet your spouse in heaven? ›

HAVING RELATIONSHIPS WITH SPOUSES, LOVED ONES IN HEAVEN

A. Yes to both. The reunion will take place, but not as husband and wife. We learn this in Jesus' explanation to the Sadducees: "When people rise from death, there will be no marriage.

What percentage of a husband's Social Security does a widow get? ›

Widow or widower, full retirement age or older—100% of your benefit amount. Widow or widower, age 60 to full retirement age—71½ to 99% of your basic amount. A child under age 18 (19 if still in elementary or secondary school) or has a disability—75%.

How long do most widows grieve? ›

It's common for the grief process to take a year or longer. A grieving person must resolve the emotional and life changes that come with the death of a loved one. The pain may become less intense, but it's normal to feel emotionally involved with the deceased for many years.

What are the three stages of widowhood? ›

They will know that everyone must: 1) absorb the shock of the change they are faced with; 2) Page 2 move out of numbness; and 3) emerge as their new self, in their own time and in their own way. This first stage, which is measured in months but usually takes more than twelve, is characterized by shock.

Do widows have a shorter life expectancy? ›

Fixed Effects Models of Widowhood and Mortality Risk

In the first 6 months of widowhood, widows experience 61% greater odds of death than when they were married. For the period between 7 and 24 months, the odds ratio is substantially reduced and is no longer significant although it is still in the expected direction.

What debts are forgiven at death? ›

What debt is forgiven when you die? Most debts have to be paid through your estate in the event of death. However, federal student loan debts and some private student loan debts may be forgiven if the primary borrower dies.

What is the first thing to do when a spouse dies? ›

A Checklist of Things to Do After a Loved One Passes
  • Contact the funeral home and make arrangements. ...
  • Call your attorney. ...
  • Contact Social Security. ...
  • Review/cancel their health insurance. ...
  • Contact your spouse's pension company if applicable. ...
  • Notify the life insurance company and file a claim.
24 Aug 2022

Does a widow inherit her husband's debt? ›

You are not responsible for someone else's debt. When someone dies with an unpaid debt, if the debt needs to be paid, it should be paid from any money or property they left behind according to state law. This is often called their estate.

What does God say about widows? ›

1Tim. 5. [3] Honour widows that are widows indeed. [4] But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God.

When can a widow collect her husband's Social Security? ›

The earliest a widow or widower can start receiving Social Security survivors benefits based on age will remain at age 60. Widows or widowers benefits based on age can start any time between age 60 and full retirement age as a survivor.

Is a widow considered single? ›

Marital Status After Death of Spouse

A spouse's death legally changes a person's status to “no longer married,” but a person can choose to consider themselves married for as long as they want.

Which finger is for widows? ›

The widow wears the ring on the right ring finger while the widower wears the ring on the left little finger. In this manner, the surviving spouse aids in the grieving process by allowing the spouse to express their status as a widowed person. The combined rings are attractive and a fitting memorial for the deceased.

What color do widows wear? ›

Black is considered the mourning color, although historically it was white. Widows may wear purple when mourning the death of their spouse.

When should a widow move? ›

Nearly all experts say to wait at least six months to a year after a death or divorce before making big lifestyle changes like moving. Sometimes it is just not possible to allow yourself that much time.

What do you do after your husband dies? ›

Two Weeks After Death
  1. Secure certified copies of death certificates.
  2. Find the will and the executor.
  3. Meet with a trusts and estates attorney.
  4. Contact a CPA.
  5. Take the will to probate.
  6. Make an inventory of all assets.
  7. Track down assets.
  8. Make a list of bills.

What is the difference between widow and widowed? ›

A widow is a woman who has lost her spouse. A widower is a man who has lost his spouse. Being "widowed" refers to a man or woman who has lost their spouse.

Who is eligible for widow's benefits? ›

A widow or widower age 60 or older (age 50 or older if they have a disability). A surviving divorced spouse, under certain circumstances. A widow or widower at any age who is caring for the deceased's child who is under age 16 or has a disability and receiving child's benefits.

What is a widow's pension and how does it work? ›

A widow's pension is a form of income distributed to the deceased person's family, who are qualifying beneficiaries, after their death. It is given out by the Social Security Administration. The pension is funded by the taxpayers when they pay their payroll taxes.

Does everyone get Widows pension? ›

To qualify for this benefit your partner must have made at least 25 weeks' worth of National Insurance contributions, or suffered a job-related death.

What is it called when you get money when your husband dies? ›

When someone dies with an unpaid debt, if the debt needs to be paid, it should be paid from any money or property they left behind according to state law. This is often called their estate.

What is the difference between widow benefits and survivor benefits? ›

While spousal benefits are capped at 50% of your spouse's benefit amount, survivor benefits are not. If you're widowed, you're eligible to receive the full amount of your late spouse's benefit, if you've reached full retirement age. The same is true if you are divorced and your ex-spouse has died.

How can I maximize my widow's Social Security benefits? ›

Another way to maximize is to wait to claim your own benefits. As a widow or widower you can claim benefits on your deceased spouse as early as 62 – while allowing your own benefit to grow. You can then switch over to your own benefit at a later date, which will result in a larger monthly check.

What is the average widow benefit? ›

Children in New Jersey have an average monthly Social Security survivors benefit of $1,004
StateYoung widow(er)sChildren
Alaska$976$870
Arizona$1,036$884
Arkansas$919$814
California$999$930
8 more rows
7 Jul 2020

How much money do you get for widow's pension? ›

These are examples of monthly benefit payments: Widow or widower, full retirement age or older—100% of your benefit amount. Widow or widower, age 60 to full retirement age—71½ to 99% of your basic amount. A child under age 18 (19 if still in elementary or secondary school) or has a disability—75%.

What are survivor benefits? ›

The Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) allows a retiree to ensure, after death, a continuous lifetime annuity for their dependents. The annuity which is based on a percentage of retired pay is called SBP and is paid to an eligible beneficiary. It pays your eligible survivors an inflation-adjusted monthly income.

What is a death grant payment? ›

If you die after receiving a pension credit and before reaching age 75*, a death grant may be payable. Generally speaking, the death grant is equal to 5 times the pension less the amount already paid. *In some situations, a death grant is only payable if you die before attaining age 70 rather than 75.

Can I collect my deceased spouse's Social Security and my own at the same time? ›

Social Security will not combine a late spouse's benefit and your own and pay you both. When you are eligible for two benefits, such as a survivor benefit and a retirement payment, Social Security doesn't add them together but rather pays you the higher of the two amounts.

How much is the bereavement support payment? ›

How much you can get. If you don't have children, you can get a lump sum payment of £2,500 and monthly payments of £100 for up to 18 months. If you have children or you're pregnant, you can get a lump sum payment of £3,500 and monthly payments of £350 for up to 18 months.

What to keep after spouse dies? ›

Personal Items to Keep After Someone Dies
  • Photos. The most important thing to keep is photographs, even those you don't recognize. ...
  • Clothing. ...
  • Antique furnishings and decor. ...
  • Jewelry. ...
  • Journals and letters. ...
  • Artwork. ...
  • Plants. ...
  • Glassware or dining sets.
23 Aug 2022

How long can you keep a deceased person's bank account open? ›

Then the procedure of transferring money to the nominee starts and the account remains in the dormant state for 6 months to 12 months (differs from bank to bank). Here are the Required documents: Application, stating that the account holder has passed away, Notarized death certificate.

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