Surviving as a Surviving Spouse

In recent past, my wife and I have seen two people we know lose their husbands. I can’t even begin to think about what my life would be like, if Karen (my wife/girlfriend/dive buddy/cooking partner/etc) was gone, as suddenly as the two husbands I mentioned above. After writing last week’s article, my editorial advisor (guess who…Karen) suggested that I write an article about some things that a surviving spouse needs to think about, aside from immediate things, like arranging a funeral. Since there are many details to address, this article isn’t meant to cover every conceivable one, but lays out a few things to ponder, and take care of.

1-Don’t rush

After the death of a spouse, there are all sorts of things running through the surviving spouse’s mind; grief and potentially anger are a couple that come right to mind. Regardless of the range of emotions being felt, thought processes will most probably be more than a bit cloudy and confused, so it’s important to remember that this is not the time to be making any major financial decisions that you’ll be bound to (and will be costly to undo), or will be regretted later on. Additionally, whatever decisions need to be made, a few weeks or even months of extra thought may not make a big difference, compared to the consequences of an incorrect knee-jerk decision. So hold off on big things, like buying or selling a house, or making big changes to your investment portfolio.

2-Get your @#$% together

I couldn’t resist that one (I’m a New Yorker!). The point is, important documents will need to be dug out of filing cabinets or storage, to be used for various purposes, such as transfers and re-titling of assets. Some of these documents are
-will and trust documents
-insurance policies
-death certificates (get at least ten certified copies)
-social security numbers
-marriage license
-military discharge papers
-statements for retirement plans and brokerage accounts

This list isn’t all inclusive, so be ready to dig for other documents, as requested.

3-Get the estate plan into motion

Since you’ve all diligently followed my recommendation from last week, you’ve engaged an estate attorney, and had a will drawn up, and an estate plan put into place. This is something that should be started as soon as practicable. Obviously it’s not meant to be the first call made, after a spouse passes away, but if the wheels are put into motion sooner rather than later, you’ll feel a lot more settled personally, once the estate is settled. Remember that in cases where an estate return needs to be filed, this must be done within nine months of the date of death.

4-Do you have enough money to live?

I know, in #1 above I instructed everyone to not rush into things, but when it comes to having enough money to live on until the estate/finances are settled, it is necessary to figure out whether there are enough liquid assets available to cover at least six to twelve months of living expenses. In this case, if there’s any life insurance, the claims process needs to be put into motion. The deceased spouse may have some unpaid vacation pay or other cash payments due, so check with the employer. Some investments may need to be sold, in order to provide cash, but remember, you don’t need to liquidate the entire portfolio.

There are lots of other details to think about, at what will probably be a time when one least wants to have to think about it. I welcome any thoughts and comments you have, and would be happy to discuss additional details with you. And please forward this article to people you know, who can use the information.

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