Sudden impact: When a spouse unexpectedly dies

by Adler Pollock & Sheehan P.C.
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Adler Pollock & Sheehan P.C.

Do you know someone who suddenly became widowed when a beloved spouse passed away in the prime of life? You may have tried to console the widow or widower, but then resumed your normal daily activities. And the surviving spouse was left to pick up the pieces of his or her life, often on their own.

But this isn’t always “someone else’s” problem. It can happen to you or a member of your immediate family. The question is: Would you be prepared to cope emotionally and financially? Could you afford to live the same lifestyle?

It’s almost impossible to fully prepare for a spouse’s sudden death, but it helps to keep your finances organized and communicate with your spouse about these matters. In addition, know that your trusted estate planning advisor can help you navigate through the minefield.

Key points to address

In the event a spouse passes away without warning, a surviving spouse will face several critical challenges, including some significant financial decisions. Of course, handling the funeral arrangements comes first.

The following are other areas that will need to be addressed:

Emotional responses. It’s easy to say, and hard to do, but don’t let your emotions rule your judgment. For instance, if you’re tempted to immediately move out of your home, sell your spouse’s business or invest a lump-sum life insurance payout, hold off. Take the time to sort out what will likely be best for you and your family in the long run. An oft-used guideline is to wait at least one year before making any significant changes. Whether this rule-of-thumb is appropriate to you, of course, will depend on your specific circumstances.

Death certificates. One of the first things to do is visit your county clerk’s office to officially record the death. At this time you can obtain death certificates, which you’ll need to provide for various dealings with financial institutions and others. While it may be difficult to estimate how many death certificates will ultimately be requested of you, and the numbers will vary person-to-person, you’ll probably want to start with at least a dozen.

Notifications. Along with the county offices, you must get the word out to other interested parties, including your spouse’s employer, if applicable; credit card companies; life insurance companies, retirement plan and IRA administrators; the Social Security Administration (SSA); the state motor vehicle agency; the state office for inheritance tax, if applicable; and your attorney and other professional advisors.

Social Security benefits. If your spouse was receiving benefits, consult with the SSA as to the benefits available to a surviving spouse. Frequently, modifications are required if the survivor was the lower-earning spouse. Even if your spouse wasn’t receiving benefits yet, you may be eligible for survivors’ benefits, depending on your age and other factors.

Insurance. Don’t assume that everything about your insurance plans will stay the same. Review your various policies — such as life, health, disability income, auto and long-term care — to ensure that you’ll have the optimal coverage going forward. Make whatever beneficiary changes are required.

Retirement plans and IRAs. Besides beneficiary designations, you may face important decisions regarding employer retirement plans, such as 401(k)s, as well as traditional and Roth IRAs. For example, if your spouse had a traditional IRA, you can complete a timely rollover to an IRA of your own without owing any tax. Conversely, you might opt for a lump-sum payout from a 401(k) or IRA should you need the funds.

Investments. Review the investments that were owned solely by your spouse, as well as those you owned jointly. When you have time, sit down with your financial advisor to chart out a path for the future, focusing on changes in personal objectives, time horizon and risk tolerance. Again, don’t make any hasty decisions. 

Other practical considerations

Is that the entire to-do list? Not by a long shot. For instance, other actions may be required if your spouse was the grantor or beneficiary of a trust or was a military veteran. Veterans are entitled to special burial reimbursements. Also, you may have to address assets your spouse owned jointly with someone else, such as a sibling. Then there are the social media and other digital accounts to consider, especially if you don’t have the passwords or a way to gain access.

Once you’re over the initial shock of the death, your overall focus should shift to organization and analysis. Account for all of your assets and figure out a long-term plan for paying regular monthly expenses and other obligations, such as college education for children. Finally, don’t forget to factor in your needs in retirement.

Sidebar: What about estate tax filings?

Although federal estate tax returns are required only for the wealthiest individuals, you may choose to file a return to establish the value of inherited assets. Generally, the return is due within nine months of the date of the death. For example, if a spouse passed away on November 1, 2017, the return is due August 1, 2018.

Also, you may face responsibilities for state estate taxes. Finally, you must file any required income tax returns on behalf of your spouse. For the year of death, typically such returns will be joint filings.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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