Betsy slowly lowered herself into a kitchen chair and buried her head in her hands. Since her husband, Bill, had died three days ago, she had been swept up in a whirlwind of activity. Between planning a funeral, notifying relatives, and nonstop condolence calls, she hadn’t had any time to grieve, much less think. Her gaze swept the room and she frowned. What now?
That’s a question many face when their spouse dies. Despite the fact that such a loss is significant—possibly the greatest loss you’ll ever experience–the rest of the world expects you to move on and take care of business.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women are more likely than men to lose a spouse—an estimated 34 percent of all women age 65 and older in the United States are widows, compared to 12 percent of the men of the same age. Unfortunately, women also tend to be the group hit hardest by the death of a spouse. For example, in many cases, husbands are the high wage-earners and the loss of that income can have a devastating financial impact. In addition, husbands tend to oversee household finances, leaving many widows at a loss when they are suddenly forced to take charge. Add to that the responsibility for settling their husband’s estate and many widows are simply overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, several steps must be taken shortly after a spouse’s death. Absent a family member or friend who offers to step in, the responsibility will fall to you. Those steps include:
- Collecting legal and financial documents. Information related to your spouse’s assets and debts, such as their Last Will and Testament, trusts, bank accounts, insurance policies, real property, investment accounts, and financial paperwork related to business interests. These will be required to settle accounts, transfer balances, and file for survivor benefits. You will also need multiple copies of the death certificate and your marriage certificate.
- If necessary, notifying the appointed representative or executor of the decedent’s estate. It will be their responsibility to contact the Probate Court, seek issuance of Letters Testamentary, and initiate the processing of the estate.
- Applying for survivor benefits. If you are the named beneficiary on your spouse’s life insurance policy, it is important to file for benefits immediately. This will provide funds for funeral expenses, as well as any outstanding medical bills. It will also be necessary to file for other entitlements, such as the survivor benefits available through Social Security, disability programs, pensions, IRAs, annuities, and other retirement plans. In addition, it is necessary to explore death or survivor benefits available from the military (if the decedent served), past employers and membership in fraternal organizations.
- Taking care of outstanding debts and other obligations. It may be necessary to cancel credit cards and settle outstanding balances, arrange for banks to revise the title to joint bank accounts or other accounts to which you are entitled, and deal with business interests, such as winding up partnerships or assuming management responsibility for an existing business. It is also important to arrange continued payments on joint obligations, such as a mortgage, car payment, and utilities.
- Seeking the counsel of an estate attorney and a financial advisor. An attorney will provide guidance on the probate process, as well as an explanation of other legal documents, such as the will and trusts. It may also be necessary to revise your estate planning documents, such as the Advance Health Care Directive, Powers of Attorneys, will or trusts. A financial advisor will provide guidance on receiving survivor benefits, such as the difference between receiving distributions in a lump sum or as monthly payments. They may also assist with analyzing your existing finances, creating a budget that will ensure your continued financial wellbeing, and investment opportunities for growing inherited funds.
While it is likely that you have had previous contact with and trust your estate planning attorney, the same may not hold true for a financial advisor. While your attorney can provide the names of potential candidates, it is important that you select an advisor with whom you feel comfortable and trust. Not only should they fully understand your financial circumstances, but also your needs and financial goals. (More on hiring a financial adviser in Part II.)
Post-death responsibilities don’t leave a whole lot of time to grieve and make no mistake, grieving is important. That’s why seeking assistance at every step possible after a spouse’s death is important. For example, hiring a financial advisor to assist with navigating your finances frees up the time necessary to join a support group for managing your grief. While certain tasks must be completed on a timely basis, they can be done without sacrificing your personal emotional well-being.