THE LAST DETAILS
The death of a spouse is a traumatic event. Whether it’s due to illness or injury and whether it’s anticipated or unexpected — it doesn’t matter. Preparing for death is something we often put off. The reality is that even though death may be awkward to discuss, it’s better to prepared and have a financial plan. The conversation may be difficult to have, but you’ll be glad you sat down with your partner to deal with the issues today, because later, during the grieving process, they will be the last thing you will want to worry about.
PUT A TEAM IN PLACE
Assemble a great team to help you prepare for the worst. You will need an estate attorney, an accountant, and a financial adviser. There are also support organizations that can help. InCharge Debt Solutions provides information on organizations that can help widows with financial relief, and the American Widow Project specifically aims to help military widows. If you or your spouse is a veteran or in the military, check out some of these many survivor support organizations. Make a list of them for when the time comes.
CALL UPON FRIENDS TO HELP
Have a couple of friends you can call on in an emergency. When a spouse passes, you will be overwhelmed with many things. You will be dealing with funeral arrangements, friends and relatives calling, breaking the news to children, or collecting a vehicle if your spouse died while at work. If you have someone who can help you with these tasks, it will be a lot easier. If you have a pet, make sure you have someone who can take care of it if you have to travel or be away from your house for extended periods of time.
SET UP A WILL
It can take less than an hour to draft a will at LegalZoom — a nationally recognized discount legal firm. A will enables you to designate your assets and property and takes the burden off your spouse in the event of your demise. If you have children, you can designate who will be responsible for their care.
MAKE SURE YOU ARE AN IRA BENEFICIARY
Remember, it’s the designated beneficiary who receives the assets from an individual retirement account (IRA). (The exception to this rule is if the IRA contributor resides in a community-property state and the spouse did not approve the designation of beneficiary. In that case, the spouse may be entitled to only a portion of the IRA.) Naming your spouse as the primary beneficiary is advantageous as it enables your spouse to roll the IRA over into their own IRA — and then name children as beneficiaries as needed. The best way to deal with the complexities of retirement accounts is to work with an estate-planning attorney who can help navigate the nuances of these deals.
MAKE FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS IN ADVANCE
It may sound morbid, but it is so much easier if arrangements and burial wishes are set up before anything bad happens. Does your spouse want a cemetery plot or a burial niche? Have you selected a funeral home? You will need to meet with a funeral director. Talk it over and find out how to make things easier for all involved.
APPLY FOR LIFE INSURANCE
If you haven’t thought about it, now is the time. Some plans are as inexpensive as $15 a month. Life insurance can help you cover funeral costs, medical bills, car payments, rent or mortgage and even offset childcare costs. It’s a worthwhile investment.
EXAMINE LONG-TERM EXPENSES
Perhaps you’ve bought a house, and you have mortgage payments. If you have children, maybe they attend private school, or perhaps you and your spouse have been saving for college tuition. The loss of your spouse could mean drastic lifestyle changes for you and your family. Examine these expenses with your mate in advance, and, as a team, explore your options for going forward in the event of a death. Options to consider may include refinancing your mortgage or selling the family home and downsizing to a smaller place.
PLAN TO FILE FOR WORK-RELATED BENEFITS
If your spouse is employed at the time of their death, you may be eligible for group life or accident insurance benefits, depending on the cause of death. In addition, there may be retiree life insurance in force. You may also be entitled to a lump-sum or monthly payment from the company pension plan or other savings plans. Surviving spouses should contact previous employers if there could be accrued pensions that were never paid out. Beforehand, maintain a list of company names, phone numbers, and dates of service.
CONTACT INSURANCE COMPANIES
Ahead of time, gather information on any life insurance policies, and find out what documentation the insurers will need in the event your spouse dies. This will make it easier when the time comes to make a claim. Proceeds are usually disbursed within 30 days after all requested materials have been received.
SOCIAL SECURITY — INVESTIGATE SPOUSAL BENEFITS
If your spouse passes before you do, know that you are entitled to receive half of their Social Security benefits upon your retirement. For example: A widow or widower of full retirement age is entitled to 100 percent of the deceased’s benefit amount. If the survivor is between 60 and full retirement age, that amount could be 71.5 percent to 99 percent depending on age and other circumstances. The age ranges change for those who are disabled or rearing children. The more that’s been paid into Social Security, the higher the payout will be. It’s wise to contact your Social Security office and go over such details ahead of time.
SOCIAL SECURITY — KNOW THE REMARRIAGE RULES
If you remarry after you reach age 60 (or 50 if disabled), you will continue to qualify for benefits on your deceased spouse's Social Security record. If you remarry before you turn 60, you forfeit this benefit.
PLAN TO SEEK THE SPECIAL LUMP-SUM PAYMENT
When a spouse dies, Social Security gives a special lump-sum death payment of $255. This is a one-time payment, and there are specific qualifications for receiving this money. Generally, this lump-sum is paid to the surviving spouse who was living in the same household as the deceased when they died. If they were living apart, the surviving spouse can still receive the lump-sum provided that, during the month the person died, they were either already receiving benefits on the deceased's record or became eligible for benefits upon the person’s death.
EXPLORE TAX IMPLICATIONS
Did you know that the date of a spouse’s passing determines the amount of income and deductions that will be reported on a person’s tax return? Marital status is determined on the last day of the tax year (Dec. 31), but when a married taxpayer dies, different rules apply. The married-filing-jointly status is often permitted even if the death occurred on Jan. 1. Bottom line, when it comes to taxes and the death of a spouse, there are many rules that come into play, and they are as complex as they are varied. Best suggestion: Consult with a tax attorney or accountant for optimal advice.
INVESTIGATE ACCESS TO ACCOUNTS
You don’t want to be locked out of your savings simply because your spouse passes away. You will continue to have access to joint bank accounts. Any account in your spouse’s name alone typically will not be accessible to the executor (who may be you) until the will is probated. But if there’s money in your spouse’s account, the bank will likely advance funds to pay for the funeral if you present a bill. And again, plan to have a death certificate for the bank. They may require an original. It’s also a good idea to make a plan for your social media and other online accounts, so that your spouse can access, deactivate or delete those accounts when needed.
PLAN FOR YOUR ESTATE
Depending on the circumstances surrounding a spouse’s passing, survivors may have issues that require estate planning. Remember, estate planning isn’t strictly for the wealthy. For example, if your spouse died in an accident, you might receive insurance money and suddenly you find yourself with $50,000. You might want to set those funds aside through asset-protection planning — which an estate planner can do. Perhaps it’s been a few years since your spouse’s passing and you’re ready to remarry, but you have children and money from your first marriage. Your goals may include: providing for your children from that prior marriage after your death, setting up a tax shelter for your existing property, or providing for family members that may have special needs. Estate planning can be complex and it requires special knowledge, so it’s best to consult with a professional.
KNOW HOW TO HANDLE CREDIT CARD DEBT
If a card is solely in your spouse’s name (and your spouse had no estate and no will), you can probably skate by without paying off this debt. Credit card companies will try to scare consumers into paying off any remaining debt, but the reality is: If it’s not in your name, you don’t need to worry about it. Plan to send a copy of the death certificate and a letter informing the company that your spouse died intestate. If it’s a joint account or there’s an estate, plan to consult with your attorney on whether you are responsible for the outstanding debt.
INVESTIGATE FLEXIBLE SPENDING ACCOUNTS
It’s important to understand your spouse’s health care plan and its benefits, such as flexible spending accounts that allow employees to set aside tax-deferred money for health expenses. Some FSAs allow for participants’ beneficiaries or the representative of the estate to submit claims for expenses or benefits for the remainder of a plan year or until the plan’s funds allocated to each specific benefit are exhausted. Participants may designate a specific beneficiary for this purpose. If no such beneficiary is specified, the plan’s administrator may be the one deciding if the spouse, a dependent, or a representative from the estate is eligible to continue coverage throughout the year. Some plans specify that coverage ceases when a participant dies. The best solution is to contact your spouse’s health plan administrator and discuss the options. A good question to ask: Are you and your family eligible for COBRA should benefits cease?
PLAN TO OBTAIN DEATH CERTIFICATES
After the death of a spouse, the surviving partner will need copies of the deceased’s death certificate. Plan to get at least three or four certified copies of your spouse’s death certificate. You will need certified, government-issued originals for claiming life insurance, pension benefits, Medicaid benefits, and other services. Some companies, such as credit card companies will require only a photocopy. You can obtain copies and original documents for the many types of transactions associated with your spouse’s death from your county recorder’s office. Your funeral director can assist in this process.
CHECK ON THE PAYCHECK
Chances are your spouse has a few weeks of back pay, vacation pay or sick pay that may have accrued. By law, if you are the beneficiary, or even if you’re not, and simply live in a state with community-property laws, you should be eligible to receive your spouse’s last paycheck. Plan to get in touch with the human resources department at your spouse’s employer. They will be able to direct you to someone who can discuss payment in detail.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO SEEK SUPPORT
If your spouse dies, go easy on yourself. This is a time of great change. You will feel as if you’re on an emotional roller coaster. The non-profit group Mental Health America acknowledges that “the loss of a loved one is life’s most stressful event.” They advise seeking out friends and relatives who can understand your feelings of loss.