How to Handle the Financial Fallout After the Death of a Spouse
We tend to shove unpleasant possibilities into the back of our minds. But the truth is, you can’t afford to assume you'll never have to deal with a true worst-case scenario.
So today I'm asking you to ask yourself the toughest question of all: “What if my spouse dies unexpectedly?”
Some of the first questions to ask yourself are logistical. In a crisis, you don’t want to find yourself scrambling from the start. Your kids and your family depend on you. To help you prepare, get the answers to these important questions today.
For starters, could you find all of the crucial documents vital to your family’s financial future and security? Do you know where they are? Do you even know WHAT they are?
Perhaps your family's financial papers are littered about the house in various locations, or in someone else’s house or office. Are they in a file cabinet, in a box in the attic, in a safe deposit box at the bank? Find them and put them in a central location that you, your spouse and your adult children can easily access.
How difficult would it be for you to create an inventory of your assets? Track down the deeds and titles to automobiles and real estate as well as personal income tax returns and life insurance contracts — the whole gamut.
If your spouse leaves no will or you simply can’t find one, your spouse will have died "intestate," which means that all assets not jointly owned will be probated. Probate is the legal process of transferring assets in an estate. The process includes paying final funeral expenses, estate debts and taxes, creating an inventory of assets owned at death, and finally, disbursing remaining assets to heirs as specified by state law.
Closely examine beneficiary designations on your family's assets. This is an often-overlooked step.
Many survivors are shocked to discover that beneficiary designations on financial assets — checking, savings, retirement funds, etc. — trump any will. This means that, upon proof of death, financial assets are automatically transferred to the designated beneficiary of record, even if a will specifically states that all assets should be left to the spouse. This fact often leads to intense family conflicts that wind up in court.
Finally, if your spouse dies unexpectedly, work your way through this list as methodically as possible:
1) First off, order at least a dozen certified death certificates from the funeral home. Each financial institution that you must deal with will require an original copy. Get your copies ordered and ready.
2) Contact all income sources about your spouse’s death. They need to know right away, preferably from you. Those you should contact include his/her employer, the Social Security Administration, his/her pension fund, managers for all Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA) and 401(k)s, insurance companies, health insurers, banks, and brokers.
3) Immediately notify the U.S. Social Security Administration of your spouse’s death, to receive whatever retirement or survivor's benefits to which you are entitled. Note that the earliest you can receive Social Security survivor benefits is age 60.
4) Determine survivor/orphan eligibility for your children. If you are a survivor and have children under the age of 16 in your household, you may collect Social Security survivor benefits for yourself, and orphan benefits for your children.
5) Since you’re probably the beneficiary listed on your spouse's IRA, you have the right to switch it to a "spousal IRA." Depending on your age, IRS rules governing a spousal IRA enable you to either continue receiving income payouts, or delay receiving payouts and creating a "stretch IRA," allowing tax-deferred growth for future years.
6) As the surviving spouse, you may be entitled to continue receiving your husband or wife’s pension income, if he or she had picked "joint annuity" pay out. Regardless, depending on the rules, you might have to accept a lower rate. Ask a financial advisor to help you explore your options.
8) Protect your identity. Now that your spouse is gone, you’re even more vulnerable to identity theft. Sophisticated thieves often steal the identities of the deceased. Change all personal identification numbers and passwords related to banks, mutual funds, credit, ATM and debit cards, as well as all other computer security systems that govern your investments and finances. Cancel all jointly held credit cards and apply for brand new ones, solely in your name.
No one likes to think about death, but to paraphrase the famous poem, don’t ask for whom the funeral bell tolls. When it comes to your financial future, it tolls for thee.