Author: Laura Knolle
The unbelievable grief you face when a spouse dies is often crushing. It is important to surround yourself with those you trust and who have your best interest at heart as you work through this very difficult time of your life.
The following ideas will help you develop your grief support group – both personal and professional. But before we get started, don’t forget this important piece of advice that often goes unheard: your friends, family, loved ones, and professionals truly do want to help, so be bold and ask for anything you might need!
The loss of a spouse brings stress from both emotional and practical effects. A sense of confusion is common. In reaching out for support, it’s important to choose the right people to depend on for assistance. In addition to being personally trustworthy and compassionate, these individuals should above all be rational and clear-headed – able to provide an objective perspective in those moments of confusion.
With the death of a spouse, the routines of your life have suddenly changed. So have financial and legal considerations that must be addressed. Your grief support group should include a mix of individuals suited to both kinds of needs. This means people who understand you personally, such as close friends and family, as well as professionals prepared to help you navigate key decisions.
Within grief support groups for spouses, those best positioned to empathize during this dramatic stage of life are those who know you best. From family members to friends and trusted neighbors, consider all your options when planning how to address your various needs.
This may sound like a given, but I talk to many widows and widowers who feel their adult children are too busy to get involved and help and never ask them. The reality is that many adult children want to help their parents, so I encourage you to at least have the conversation. If you have more than one child, consider hosting a family meeting so you can express how you are feeling and what you could use help with, allowing the opportunity for each of them to contribute.
It may be something as simple as attending any meetings with you (such as meetings with professionals or doctor’s appointments), to be a second set of ears (or being on a conference call if your children are not local), or even helping with the grocery shopping for a few weeks. Whatever you need while you’re dealing with the death of a spouse, get help until you feel you are ready to do it again on your own.
If you do not have children, or they do not live locally, are there other close family members to whom you can reach out? Perhaps you have siblings, nieces, nephews or cousins with whom you have been close, but recently not in regular contact due to distance or busy schedules. Some may be in a position to play an active role in your grief support group. Even among those who cannot, establishing closer ties can broaden your base of support in a meaningful way.
While your family members can help with the personal and private to-dos (such as finances, grocery shopping etc.), they may also be grieving deeply as well so you may wish to engage your friends for emotional support during this time. Call a friend regularly to chat. You can also connect on social media for support. My friends and I frequently use Facebook Messenger to chat about problems or concerns. Having the support of a group of friends (who all chime in quickly) while coping with the death of a spouse can be tremendously helpful.
If you have a good relationship with your neighbors, ask them to help you keep an eye on things. Unfortunately, death (and public information such as publishing an obituary) is a lead for thieves. Ask your neighbors to watch your property when you are not home, especially during the funeral.
Perhaps there is a neighbor who would volunteer to do yardwork temporarily, or you may consider hiring a service. If you plan to be out of town, it is also a good idea to let your neighbors know and temporarily suspend mail and newspaper service.
No one can bring back your spouse, but your family and friends love you and want to be helpful. Giving them the opportunity to be in your life in supportive and valuable roles allows them to heal too.
From investments and tax planning to insurance and company benefits, a surviving spouse must navigate a formidable array of financial and legal matters. Ensuring your grief support group includes experts qualified to assist with these issues can help make this potentially confusing and emotional journey easier.
Your estate planning attorney should be one of the first people you reach out to when you lose a spouse. They will review your current estate plan to make sure assets are split as you and your spouse intended.
Administering your current estate plan doesn’t need to be immediate, but action should be taken relatively quickly after one spouse has passed. There are time limits when you can file for portability, for example.
Portability allows the surviving spouse to use the deceased spouse’s unused exclusion amount but you have to file Form 706 within 9 months after the date of death. I have seen estates (very large ones) that were never split as their trust indicated until years later. This requires higher legal fees, possibly petitioning the court to change the trust, and maybe even forensic accounting (which leads to even more fees – and more headaches).
If you don’t have an estate plan in place you should still reach out to an estate planning attorney for a review of your situation. Plus, once the estate is settled, it will be time to update your estate documents for you personally moving forward.
A CFP® professional can help you get your financial life in good order. Hopefully, you have already been meeting with a CFP® professional regularly, but if not, engage their help now. You can find someone in your area at www.letsmakeaplan.org.
CFP® professionals are trained in retirement/cash flow planning, investments, insurance (life, health, disability, property & casualty, and long-term care), tax and estate planning. Therefore, in addition to helping you with your investment accounts, they can also be your quarterback through this process and collaborate with your estate planning attorney, CPA, insurance agents, and other professionals.
It is especially important to make sure any retirement accounts pass to beneficiaries properly – this can get tricky and you may need the assistance of a CFP® professional who understands these rules. For example, while a surviving spouse can roll an IRA to their own personal IRA (and sometimes this is done without a second thought), there may be planning reasons not to do so – for example if you are younger than 59½ (normal distribution age), you may wish to wait. If a distribution from the IRA is made to a beneficiary, it is exempt from the 10% early-distribution penalty. If the spouse rolls the plan into their own IRA then takes distributions prior to age 59½, they are subject to the 10% penalty.
It’s important to work with your CPA to make any necessary adjustments to your tax planning, including your withholding and estimated taxes. The year your spouse dies the IRS considers you married for the entire year and you can file “Married Filing Jointly.”
For the two years following the death of your spouse, if you have a dependent child and meet several requirements, you may be able to file for qualifying widow or widower, otherwise you will file with a “Single” status, which might result in you being in a higher tax bracket. And if there is a change in your income due to the death of your spouse, a change in tax withholdings or quarterly payments may be warranted as well.
Reach out to your insurance professionals for assistance making any necessary adjustments to existing policies and to receive any benefits you are entitled to. For example, if your spouse had a life insurance policy where you were listed as beneficiary, you will need to submit a claim to receive the proceeds. And don’t forget, if you have any insurance policies where your spouse is listed as a beneficiary, these will need to be updated. If you are paying premiums on behalf of your spouse’s policies, notify the companies so payments can stop. Adjust any property & casualty policies to remove your spouse and any items that may have been insured that no longer need to be as they are sold or gifted to other family members (such as a car or jewelry).
I recommend taking documentation directly into the bank (such as a death certificate) so a personal banker can personally walk you through next steps versus calling a 1-800 number. For any joint accounts you will most likely become the sole owner. If your spouse had an account in their name only with Payable on Death (POD), the beneficiary listed (that person) will become the owner. If the account was titled to a trust, the successor trustee will manage the account. If the account was in your spouse’s name only, work with your estate planning attorney to gather the assets. The account may potentially need to go through probate.
If you or your spouse was employed, be sure to notify the HR department of his or her death. If your spouse was entitled to any benefits such as salary, bonus or commissions, vacation pay, life insurance, or retirement plans (pensions, 401(k) plans, etc.), the HR personnel will be able to explain the benefits and walk you through any paperwork that needs to be completed. If you are employed, be sure to let your HR department know of the loss of your spouse so they can assist you with updating your benefits such as beneficiaries of life insurance or retirement plans, tax withholding, emergency contacts, health insurance, etc.
If your spouse owned a business with other partners (hopefully they had a succession plan in place), team up with them – and their business attorney – to help you with the transition. The type of transition will depend on the type of business entity. Life insurance is frequently used to pay the surviving spouse their share of the business. There will be many moving parts to address, so be sure that you retain your own counsel to represent your interest if you feel it’s warranted.
There are many people who should make up your loss and grief support team during this difficult time. I recommend staying organized – perhaps carry a notebook with you at all times to keep lists, meeting notes, and other important items in one place. When meeting with professionals, ask for a summary follow-up e-mail detailing out what was discussed and the next steps you need to take. Ask professionals and friends and family to check back with you regularly if they haven’t heard from you.
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