On July 29, 2011, my father died in a single car accident, leaving my 73 year old mother — and his children and grandchildren — behind. While my mother has a great network of friends, this is a time of change and transition for her. She must get used to cooking for one, being alone in the house, and managing what used to be done by two (while my father was not all that helpful, he did do some things). Fortunately for her, she was already handling the household affairs, so she has a good understanding of the domestic finances. Not everyone is so lucky.
Whenever a client suffers the death of a spouse, I tell them not to make any significant changes within the first year. This is the period for dealing with the emotional aspects of loss, and isn’t the best time for the grieving spouse to relocate, sell the house, or make other potentially disruptive changes. Better to stay put and maintain the status quo for the first 12 months.
Unfortunately, the world doesn’t wait for the grieving, and there are still some things you’ll need to do.
Accessing any online accounts needs to be a priority. You should keep your account passwords in a safe and known location. My father wasn’t much of a computer user – he could access his email and read it, but my mother typed his responses. He didn’t do any online banking; that was my mother’s job, so she already had all of the log-in information.
You’ll also want to gather your Social Security records, birth and marriage certificates, military discharge papers, corporate benefit information, personal property (car) titles, powers of attorney, bank statements, Wills and Trusts, life insurance statements, and brokerage and retirement account statements. The death certificate is an important document, and the funeral director will provide you with that. (Ask for at least 12; you’ll need more than you think.)
Notify the Employer
If your spouse was still working, someone will need to notify the employer. There may be benefits due you (life insurance, accrued vacation or sick leave), and you’ll have to make decisions with respect to health care coverage. Also, if your spouse had a pension or was covered under a corporate retirement plan such as a 401(k), actions will need to be taken with respect to those benefits.
If you’re unfamiliar with the household finances, you’ll need to get up to speed immediately. Understanding the inflows and the outflows is a top priority. It has probably been quite a while since any budgeting was done, but developing the list of the sources of income – where it’s coming from, when, and in what amounts – and the expenses (both fixed, like the mortgage and taxes, and variable, like gifts) needs to be created. This is vital information — you may need to make cuts and changes, but won’t know until you understand how the outflows compare to the inflows.
As my mother is discovering, customer service isn’t what it used to be. It often takes months to get something changed, and it rarely happens after the first call. Keeping a list of each entity that you’ve spoken to will help you monitor the implementation. Whether it’s Social Security, the VA, AARP, or your long-term care provider, be prepared to make multiple calls to ensure that what has to happen actually does happen. Don’t assume that you’ll remember all of this; make a list instead.
If you’re lucky enough to already be a Pinnacle client, your wealth manager will be ready to help. If you don’t work with an advisor, the death of your spouse may be the impetus you need to find someone to help you. In the interim, though, you may need to ask one of your children, or a close friend. Your tax preparer and/or estate planning attorney (if you have these advisors) may also be willing to provide you with guidance. In my mother’s case, she has me, even though she lives in New York and I’m in Washington, D.C.
Handle the Estate
Your estate planning attorney can help you determine what you have to do and what information you’ll need to obtain in order to file an estate tax return (or if one will need to be done at all). The return must be filed within nine months of your spouse’s passing, and will probably require getting appraisals and date-of-death valuations from a variety of sources. An advisor can help with this.
It probably also makes sense to update your own estate planning documents. While there’s no rush to do this, it’s something that should be on your radar screen. The dispositive provisions may need to be changed, and Trustees, executors, and attorneys-in-fact updated.
No-one is immune to death; eventually, it will happen to us all. The more planning we do in advance, the less of a burden our passing will create for our loved ones. However, even with the best planning, the surviving spouse will still have to take action on a few pressing items. Hopefully, this list will help you do so, even in the midst of a most difficult time.
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