6 tips for Tackling Financial Matters After Losing a Spouse
When a spouse dies, you likely face the overwhelming responsibility of not only closing out their life but securing your own. Bottom line, you need to ensure that your spouse is no longer responsible for any financial obligations and that you stand to receive the financial assets that should legally be yours going forward. Managing all of this involves a lot of paperwork and requires more organization and attention to detail than you might feel comfortable with, or even capable of, right away.
Adding to this, you also have any number of everyday-life tasks in front of you – from canceling a dentist appointment to transferring a joint gym membership into your name only. To help you better cope, these are the kinds of things that can easily be handled by someone else. And you should seriously consider doing just that.
The next time someone asks, “what can I do to help,” take them up on the offer and delegate. Most experts in the field of elder care say that a helping hand can make a tremendous difference in easing the burden and should be accepted if offered. If no loved one or close friend is available, consider bringing in a financial advisor to assist, especially with planning tasks to map out your new financial life.
While you might just see an insurmountable mountain of paperwork in front of you at first, it's not as cumbersome when you take one task at a time. Here’s a starting point to tackle the more immediate financial matters on your plate.
6 things to do first
1. Itemize assets, income, and debt. The first thing you need to do is figure out how much money you have from all sources – money in the bank, retirement and investment accounts, life insurance death benefits. This will help you determine both the amount of money readily available to meet expenses, as well as how much debt your spouse owes. You will have to pay this debt before you and other beneficiaries will be able to receive assets, and you will also be required to file a tax return for your spouse to find out if you need to pay taxes.
2. Implement estate plan. If your spouse left a will or had a living trust in place, locate these documents and notify your estate planning attorney. The attorney can help with the next step of determining how to handle your spouse’s estate. If there is no will or living trust, then you should find an estate planning attorney to help with the intestacy process.
3. Change ownership records. The next thing you should do is change the name on any asset or debt that is either in your spouse’s name only
or in both of your names: joint bank and investment accounts, bills, insurance policies, real estate, trust accounts and cars. If you and your spouse shared credit cards, contact the credit card companies and ask them to leave your name but remove your spouse's. Don't close credit card accounts and open new ones because this can have a negative impact on your credit score.
4. Contact Social Security. Notify the Social Security Administration of the death and check to see what benefits are available to you as the surviving spouse, as well as to any children who are still minors.
5. Contact spouse's employer(s). Find out if any unpaid salary or commissions or employee benefits -- life insurance proceeds, pension benefits, accrued vacation and/or sick pay, leftover funds in a medical flexible spending account, etc. -- are payable. Ask whether existing health insurance coverage can be continued (if applicable) and for how long and find out the cost.
6. Review your portfolio and investment goals. With the death of your spouse, your investment objectives might change. For instance, you might want to withdraw more or less money from your accounts to accommodate an altered lifestyle. Or you might have a different time horizon for tapping your retirement investments. In that case, you might want to consider adjusting your portfolio's mix of stocks, bonds, and cash to reflect your own objectives.
Consider getting assistance from an experienced financial professional. Someone who will take the time to sit down and talk about these matters can be invaluable. You have enough on your plate, so don’t try to do it all by yourself.
What happens if my spouse left no will?
Generally, a will or living trust determines what happens to a person’s assets upon their death. If your spouse dies without a will or trust, (known as “intestate”), the distribution of property and assets is determined under state law. Intestacy laws can vary widely from state to state and depend on whether the decedent left a surviving spouse and/or descendant. Additionally, community property states (such as California and Washington) have additional laws regarding the distribution of community and separate property to a surviving spouse and descendants. In most cases, a probate court proceeding is required to administer an intestate estate, but less formal methods might apply to smaller estates (generally less than $100,000 in assets).
If your spouse died without a will or living trust, or you think you might be entitled to inherit from someone who died intestate, you should consult with an estate planning attorney to determine your legal recourse.
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This information is not intended as legal or tax advice and should not be treated as such. You should contact your estate planning and/or tax professional to discuss your personal situation.
Wealth planning strategies have legal, tax, accounting and other implications. Prior to implementing any wealth planning strategy, clients should consult their legal, tax, accounting and other advisers.