Life ends with only one possible conclusion: death. And while no one wants to spend any more time than necessary thinking about that outcome, basic steps taken now can help avoid adding the confusion and frustration of estate finances to the pain of losing a spouse.
If you’re a woman and you have been telling yourself you’ll die first or you’ll die within days of your spouse, keep in mind that women typically outlive men – 80% of women will die single, according to the Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation. The average widow is just 56 years old. And 25 percent of widows have spent their husband’s death benefit within two months.
In some households financial responsibilities like paying bills and investing fall to the woman. In other situations, one spouse handles bills and the other investing, or they address those issues and tasks together. If you are in one of those households, congratulations. You probably have the insight and information you will need if your husband dies first.
Among some couples, the husband takes the lead in handling money matters. The perfect time to start preparing for taking care of the finances on your own is while your spouse is alive and well, because you have him there to discuss your financial situation and understand his role in your total financial picture. Maintaining at least a big picture of the household finances can help women feel less confused and overwhelmed when their husband dies, or is no longer able to handle those responsibilities. At a minimum, know how much money is coming in and how much is going out each month – and where it’s going.
If you haven’t already, you will also want to meet the team of advisors you and your husband turn to for accounting, legal, insurance and investment help. Their names and phone numbers should be somewhere you can easily access them in an emergency. If you don’t already have a relationship with a professional in one of these areas, you may want to find someone now whom you feel comfortable with, perhaps through a referral from a friend or relative. A crisis is not the time to be shopping for a trusted advisor.
Put together a file of copies of your most important documents and keep it someplace easy for you to find. On each copy, note where the original is kept. This file should include copies of birth certificates for both of you and any dependent children, your marriage license, the deed to your house, military discharge papers, a list of assets, insurance policies, wills and medical powers of attorney. The originals should be kept someplace safe, but not necessarily in a safe deposit box. Some states seal the contents of a safe deposit box at the time of death, which will mean those documents aren’t available to you when you need them.
Discuss with your husband and your financial professional the death benefits available from pensions, retirement plans and Social Security as well as how other accounts will transfer. You need to know that when your spouse dies, you will have funds to cover immediate living expenses as well as funeral arrangements. By having a plan in place ahead of time, you can avoid the additional stress and anxiety of dealing with bills while you’re grieving.
Websites, books and magazines abound with information about finances, which you may find helpful in expanding your understanding of the subject. At a minimum, you should have an understanding of your personal situation so that when the inevitable happens, you can focus less on money issues and more on your family and your own grief.