My husband, Chuck, passed away suddenly just one year ago. He was only 56, and his death was totally unexpected.
Dealing with the emotional shock of losing your partner is only part of the story. As the surviving spouse, you also face numerous financial decisions with both short- and long-term consequences. Once the services are over and others return to their lives, reality sets in as you encounter insurance companies, credit card companies, medical bills, investment accounts, and everyday payments such as monthly utility bills.
While none of us enjoys planning for the loss of a loved one, it is important to be prepared when it comes. Waiting until the midst of the turmoil and emotional upheaval only complicates your loss, clouds your decisions, and overwhelms your thinking. Putting a plan into place for the surviving spouse is for everyone—regardless of income, educational level, or socioeconomic background. I hope you will take advantage of this time to sit down with your loved ones and discuss the following financial matters:
- Financial advisors. Whether you use a CPA, banker, financial planner, or other financial specialist, identify someone today that you trust and who will be available to help. A good financial advisor will not take over and tell you what to do; instead, they will assist and guide you to make informed choices.
- Wills. A will is not only a legal document; it is also a financial document to protect you and your family. It allows you and your spouse to pre-plan for life after one of you is gone. It also expresses the wishes of the deceased, which can diminish potential problems with relatives, business partners, and other interested parties. Personal papers. Having insurance policies, mortgage papers, wills, power of attorney, military discharge papers, marriage and birth certificates, and other important papers in one location will save you time and frustration. Sit down with your spouse and adult children to discuss each of them so everyone is aware of what policies and papers exist, and have a clear understanding of their purpose.
- Benefits. Filing for benefits is emotionally draining and requires a great deal of time. Having a checklist with contact information for each benefit helps relieve the stress and allows someone else to better assist you with the process. Some possible sources of eligible benefits available to you include insurance benefits such as life, medical, accidental death, credit life, auto, and credit card; death or survivor’s benefits from Social Security; veteran’s benefits; and a variety of employment-related benefits.
- Titles, deeds, and ownership. You will probably need to initiate changes in personal and real property titles, transferring the ownership from your spouse or joint ownership to your name only. Transactions involved include your home or other real estate, vehicles, stocks, bonds, bank accounts, safe deposit boxes, and credit cards—to name a few.
- Major decisions after your loss. While you and your spouse may discuss potential life-changing decisions for the surviving spouse, you may want to take your time before implementing them. What sounds good when the two of you are planning may not be appropriate or as appealing when you are left alone. You do not need to make immediate choices about investing insurance proceeds, selling your home, moving, or changing jobs. Most counselors recommend waiting at least a year before making major life changes. While well-intended, avoid anyone who attempts to pressure you to do it now. Talk things over with your financial advisor and take time to make responsible decisions.
- Access to cash. Keep in mind, all or part of your assets may be frozen and inaccessible upon the death of your spouse. You may want to consider a checking, savings, or money market account in your name only to ensure you have immediate access to cash when needed.
Dealing with the loss of your spouse is difficult. Take plenty of time for yourself and allow yourself to grieve. If you have a financial plan in place, you have more time and energy for dealing with your loss. Having a plan does not erase your pain, but it will help reduce the stress and strain of one of life’s greatest challenges.
Sue Lynn Sasser, PhD, is an associate professor of economics at the University of Central Oklahoma.