The shock of losing a spouse is perhaps the toughest emotional adjustment for anyone in their lives. The financial decisions that follow the loss of your partner can also be immense and immediate. It is easy to become paralyzed and overwhelmed with what needs to be done, and when.
Plan for Unexpected Loss
If your spouse is still alive, it is never too early to discuss the issues that are important to both of you and plan for the unexpected loss of your partner. This could include the following:
Create an estate plan, with the help of a financial advisor (such as Modera Wealth Management LLC) and legal counsel, that appropriately takes care of your loved ones and manages your estate and financial affairs. This may also include the care of minor children, living wills, and designations of health care proxies to explicitly state your wishes under certain circumstances. You should periodically review your estate plan, especially when you experience significant lifestyle or financial change in your lives.
Establish a trust, if appropriate for your and your spouse’s situation.
Consider how much life insurance is appropriate for you and your spouse. For example, if your spouse earns the main source of household income, he or she should obtain a commensurately larger life insurance policy that will be there to help you adjust financially during a life transition, such as widowhood.
Name yourselves as beneficiaries and/or joint owners on each other’s bank accounts, retirement plans, life insurance policies, and other assets, where appropriate. This could save time with estate planning and will also streamline access to those assets after a spouse is gone by avoiding probate.
Jointly decide on and establish relationships with a financial advisor, estate lawyer, and other third-party professionals that can expertly help implement your wishes. Establishing these trusted relationships while you are both alive can prove essential in easing the transition upon the death of a spouse.
Moving Forward from Your Loss (and When)
While it helps to have these initial plans in place, preparation only gets you so far. There can still be a sense of denial when a loved one passes away, not just from the emotional loss but from being overwhelmed by the questions of “what happens now?” and “how can I do it all?”.
Here’s the good news: Not everything needs to be figured out or completed immediately after your spouse is gone. Instead, write down your thoughts and concerns, and then break down your list into chunks of time to ease your burden.
For example, these may be some of the most important issues to immediately address during the first few days after the loss of a partner:
Follow any organ or body donation instructions provided by your spouse.
Select/contact a funeral home: Meet with the funeral director to discuss costs, any special arrangements with regards to burial or cremation, ceremonies, or next steps, such as ordering death certificates. You will likely need 10 or more death certificates for claiming any survivor benefits and insurance for yourself and other relatives, as well as to close out your spouse’s affairs and accounts.
Notify immediate family, important friends, and your partner’s former employer. You may wish to keep your initial contact list short, and then let those around you help spread the word and assist you during this trying period.
Prepare an obituary and distribute to local newspapers or other social media as you deem appropriate.
Set up a system to track inbound connections from friends and family so that you can acknowledge them later via thank-you cards or other means.
In the following weeks, take time out for yourself to grieve privately and with people closest to you. Do not jump into life-changing decisions too soon. However, you may want to begin working on some administrative items on your list, for example:
Review/obtain your own health care coverage and check-up. Make sure you take care of yourself and your health first. If you previously obtained health care through your spouse’s former employer, you are eligible for COBRA benefits. Visit with your doctor to make sure you are healthy and seek additional counseling if you need it.
Obtain and review important financial and legal documents, including bank and retirement accounts, insurance policies, as well as will and trust documents. You may wish to do so in presence of your financial advisor or legal counsel.
File a Social Security benefits claim with a local Social Security office, or go online ssa.gov. Request Publication No. 05-10084: Social Security Survivor Benefits. Remember, both you and your children under 18 may be eligible to receive Social Security benefits in the event of the passing of your spouse.
Contact any insurance companies (including those offered through your spouse’s former employer) in order to file and collect life insurance benefits, or to adjust holders on auto, homeowners, or other insurance policies.
Collect other survivor benefits, such as veteran or pension benefits through your spouse’s former employer.
In the following months, you can start to tidy up other financial loose ends on your list, such as the following:
Close bank and credit card accounts formerly in your spouse’s name.
Remove your spouse’s name from joint accounts and assets (such as your home).
Roll over your spouse’s IRA(s) into your own.
Review and reevaluate current investments, investment strategy, and risk tolerance with your financial advisor to ensure you are comfortable with any pre-existing investments, or to make appropriate changes to your plan.
Follow up on the estate settlement process with your estate attorney and/or tax professional to make sure the process is proceeding as planned.
File an estate tax return within nine months of your spouse’s death if estate taxes are owed to either the federal or state governments.
Update or create a new will and estate plan. Your situation has changed – make sure your will and estate plans reflect your new life and wishes.
Preparing for an unexpected loss and managing loss can be emotional and daunting. Do not go at it alone. Modera Wealth Management, LLC can help you establish and manage your estate, investment, retirement, and insurance planning efforts. We can provide you a one-stop shop to a team of unbiased experts. Let us become a trusted resource to you, both before and after significant life changes, such as widowhood.
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