“There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other, there can be no happy end to it.” – Ernest Hemingway
I want to apologize from the outset for what could be classified as a “downer” of a column. I have been in the financial advisory business for nearly 20 years, and I have encountered random periods where multiple clients pass away over a very brief period of time. Unfortunately, I am currently in the midst of one of those periods.
It’s hard enough to deal with the loss of a spouse on an emotional level. Add to that having to sort out all the financial issues, and it can be overwhelming. Here are some tips to help you take control of the situation.
I know this may be old-fashioned, but buy a notebook.
Write down the contact information for the family lawyer, accountant and financial adviser. Then print out a recent statement from all bank, brokerage and retirement accounts, as well as any current insurance policies. Don’t rely on online statements. The most common problem I see after the death of a spouse is that the survivor needs to start trying to get into online access for all these accounts, and it is very difficult.
What to do first?
Set up meeting with your accountant, lawyer and financial adviser. These professionals have loads of experience in dealing with all the various issues that may arise, and they can help guide you through this process.
Suddenly there is a lot on your plate, and you don’t even know where to start. Here are some important issues to deal with sooner rather than later:
1. Re-title all accounts: You will need to remove your deceased spouse from any joint account. I strongly urge that when re-titling accounts it’s important to add either a joint account holder or give power of attorney to someone – usually a trusted child. You should live and be well, but if something catastrophic happens that limits your ability to make decisions, your money is basically frozen. If you need a large chunk of money for medical issues or for a caregiver, you are out of luck. If you have another person on your account, they can see to it that your money can be accessed in times of trouble.
2. Life insurance: Start the process to collect your benefit from any life-insurance policies that may be out there. Call your agent and she will guide you through the benefit process.
3. Probate the will: Call your lawyer and have her walk you through the process. If all is in order, it doesn’t take too long, maybe a couple of months. If there are complications and someone decides to challenge, be prepared for a long process that can take years to clean up.
4. Benefits: Contact Social Security or the National Insurance Institute (Bituach Leumi) to inform them of the death. If your spouse was receiving benefits, they will be stopped at once, and you can apply for survivor benefits.
Wait a few months to try and determine how much money you will need on a monthly basis. The reason to wait a while is that you may have all kinds of immediate expenses that will totally skew your budget and give you an inflated figure of what you need. After things calm down, start to track expenses.
Break your expenses down to those that are monthly and those that are annual, one-time expenses.
Once you have that organized, write down all of your various sources of income, salary, social security, rental income, etc.
This means that once you know how much money enters your bank account each month, create a budget that limits your spending to the amount of income you have.
If you end up receiving a large sum of money from an insurance policy, stick it in the bank for three to four months. Don’t make any rash or impulsive purchases or investments until you feel like you are in control and can make rational decisions. I have seen many instances where a surviving spouse receives a large death benefit and squanders it immediately by buying all those things that “needed” to be bought or by giving overly large gifts to children to help them out. Nothing against helping children, but make sure you have enough for yourself first.
The death of a spouse is emotionally devastating, but you need to continue living your life. By implementing these tips, you can start taking control of your financial situation, which is one thing at least that will help enable the healing to begin.
The information contained in this article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the opinion of Portfolio Resources Group, Inc., or its affiliates.
Aaron Katsman is a licensed financial professional in Israel and the United States who helps people with US investment accounts. He is the author of the book Retirement GPS: How to Navigate You