Half of a Whole: Losing Your Spouse

Whether it’s sudden and unexpected or after an already lengthy ordeal, there’s nothing that can prepare you for losing your spouse. Grief and mourning affect each of us uniquely, but all widows and widowers share a painful dilemma: On the one hand, the world seems to demand rapid response to a barrage of critical questions – financial and otherwise. On the other hand, it’s usually a terrible time to be making big decisions, especially if they really can wait.

Here are some helpful handholds to hang onto if you have been recently widowed (or you know someone who has), plus preemptive steps to take if you’re reading this in happier times.

If You Recently Lost Your Spouse

Don’t decide anything you don’t have to – especially about your finances.

This may seem like odd advice from a financial adviser. Our usual role is to help people make sound money decisions and get on with their lives. The thing is, when you’re experiencing grief, it’s not just an emotion. It’s a biological process affecting your ability to make rational decisions regarding your financial interests. Even small choices can feel overwhelming, let alone the big ones. That’s why our advice at this time is to put off anything that can wait.

By the way, most financial decisions are NOT as urgent as they might seem.

This brings us to our next point. Remember, service providers, friends and family (who may also be grieving) may mean well. But their sense of urgency – and your own – may be off-kilter. Basically, unless all heck is about to break loose if you fail to act, give yourself a break and assume most financial decisions can wait. Any life insurance proceeds you receive can be temporarily parked in a checking account with the insurance company, providing a cash security cushion and some flexibility without locking up the money long-term. Later, when you feel up to it, you and your adviser can address where the proceeds can benefit you most.

Create the space to focus on matters that actually are urgent.

Putting long-term plans on hold also helps create space to take care of the essentials, such as making funeral arrangements, managing immediate expenses, and simply taking care of yourself and your dependents. Do make sure you’ve got enough cash flow available to make daily purchases and pay your bills, so these don’t become a source of added stress. Gather imminently critical paperwork such as any pre-planned funeral arrangements, and multiple copies of the death certificate. It’s also best to ensure your and your children’s healthcare coverage remains in place. Let everything else slide for a little while, and/or …

Lean on others, even if you don’t usually.

You don’t have to go it alone. For practical and emotional support, turn to friends, family, clergy and similar relationships. For financial and legal paperwork, contact professionals such as your financial adviser, CPA and insurance agent. Focus on relationships that help relieve your burden and avoid those that burn up your limited energy. Be cautious about forming brand new relationships at this time; unfortunately, seemingly sympathetic con artists prey on those whose defenses are down.

After a Little Time Has Passed

Assess where you are.

Once you feel ready to take on some of the mid- and long-range logistics, slow and steady remain the ways to go. It can be helpful and cleansing to start by gathering up your scattered resources. Wills and trusts, insurance policies, financial statements, personal identification, mortgages, retirement benefits, safety deposit box contents, business paperwork, military service records, club memberships, etc. Whether on paper or online, take stock of what you’ve got. 

Reach out.

Continue reaching out to others to address your evolving needs. Turn to your financial adviser for assistance in organizing your investment accounts, shifting ownerships as needed, closing or consolidating unnecessary ones, and sorting through your spouse’s retirement and work benefits. Contact your spouse’s employers to learn more. Work with a lawyer for settling the estate. Meet with an insurance specialist to revisit your healthcare coverage. Speak with your accountant about the necessary tax filings. Firm up your ongoing banking and bill-payment routines. Contact an attorney about resolving any outstanding debts if your spouse had personal or business-related debt in his or her name.  If you are not obligated to pay those debts, you could put those resources toward your future. 

Shift your focus outward.

When it comes to lifetime transitions, each of us is on our own schedule. But eventually, the time will come when you’re ready to circle back to those larger decisions you put on hold. Again, don’t go it alone. Your financial adviser can help you take a fresh look at your finances – your earning, saving, investing and spending plans. You also may start to look at your larger wealth interests, such as your will, trusts, overall insurance coverage and more. Whether you determine everything is fine or adjustments are warranted, wait until you’re at a place in which you can make these sorts of decisions deliberately instead of in haste.

Pre-Planning Is an Act of Love

If you’re reading this during happier times, we can’t emphasize enough how important it is to pre-plan for when one or both of you pass away. Pre-planning can simplify or even eliminate some of the most agonizing decisions surviving family members must face during one of the worst times in their lives. As such, your wills, trusts, powers of attorney, living wills (advance directives) and pre-planned funeral arrangements may be among the most loving gifts you can give one another as a couple, especially if you have dependent children. If these key estate planning materials are not yet in place, there’s no better day than today to give each other the gift of advance planning.

Make Sure Your Adviser Is the Right Fit for You

After a spouse’s death, some individuals decide to make a change in their advisers. This can be especially true if the spouse who died was the adviser’s primary point of contact for the couple. Surviving spouses – when they’re ready – should consider whether their adviser remains a good fit, and can be a source of needed support in the future. If your adviser mostly dealt with your husband or wife, he or she may be unwilling or unable to adjust to your needs. In that case, you should consider a change. But do your research first! Not all advisers are created equal!

Estate planning is an important part of a comprehensive financial plan, but it’s not the only part. At AMDG Financial, we can serve as your single point of contact, connecting you not only to our internal subject-matter experts, but also to our network of service provider specialists who can support you in achieving your financial goals. If you’re interested in working with a fee-only, fiduciary financial advisory firm, I invite you to contact us for a complimentary, no-obligation appointment. We would be pleased to help you and your family.

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