What To Do (and not do) After the Death of Your Spouse

October 15, 2020

Alan and Jason and I consider ourselves pretty lucky to be doing what we’re doing.  However, the tumultuous markets this year can make us question that.  Market volatility comes and goes, but that’s not the worst part of our jobs.  The worst part is when a client dies.  We often find ourselves meeting with a deceased client’s spouse.  Few things compare to the difficulty of losing one’s spouse, and that difficulty is often compounded by the immense pressure to make decisions at precisely the hardest possible moment.  Many of these tasks seem to require immediate attention, so it is important to take precautions to guard against making decisions while emotionally vulnerable. 

Take some time to reflect.  Don’t put your house on the market right away, don’t sell assets, give away money to children or charity, or agree to move in with an adult child.  Any of those decisions may make sense in time.

The first thing you should do is gather the documents you’ll need.  It’s a great idea to do this ahead of time and make a list of documents and locations so that when the time comes, they are easy to find.  Some things you will need are social security numbers, birth and death certificates and military discharge paperwork.  The next document you’ll get is the death certificate.  Get a few extra, because most accounts will require it.  Keep a joint checking account for at least a year so you can deposit any checks that happen to come in that are made to the deceased spouse or to both of you.  Don’t be afraid to get some help, whether it’s from an accountant, lawyer, financial planner, trusted friend or adult child.  If you are used to making major decisions with a partner, this will make it easier more natural.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if you think they are dumb.

Next, assess your cash flow.   Make a list of your fixed expenses and a separate list of your discretionary expenses.  Then, make a list of your income sources.  Remember that the social security benefits you are receiving may change, as well as any pension benefits.  Collect any life insurance benefits that exist.  This may help to make up any shortfall in your income.  The life insurance company may want to put the money in an account and send you a checkbook instead of sending you a check.  This is fine, but if you want the whole amount, simply write a check for the entire amount as soon as you get it.  They also may offer to give you the benefit as a lifetime income.  Before you agree to this, get an opinion from a financial planner or other trusted friend. You’ll want to consult with an attorney to find out what needs to be done to prepare the estate.  If you have done estate planning ahead of time, you will usually use the attorney that set that up for you.

If your spouse was employed when he or she passed away, you should check with their employer.  You will be entitled to any unpaid salary and bonuses, sick days and medical savings.  Many employers offer group life as a benefit, so check it see if that applies.  If you and your spouse were covered by the employer’s health insurance plan, you may have the opportunity to continue that coverage under COBRA.  You will also want to find out about any retirement benefits, like a 401(k) or pension plan.  All of these also apply if your spouse was retired from the employer and had been receiving retirement benefits.

The stress of the death of a loved one is difficult, especially your spouse.  Hopefully, a little preparation will make the financial aspects a bit less stressful.

To hear the podcast of the Smart Money Management radio show on this topic, or others, go to our website at alderferbergen.com.

 The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. 

Securities and financial planning offered through LPL Financial, a registered investment advisor.  Member FINRA/SIPC