Handling Financial Decisions After the Loss of a Spouse

man alone on a bench in desert

No one wants to think about death — not their own or the death of their loved ones. As we age, some of us become more accepting that life is not permanent. Sometimes, this clarity of thought results in financial planning that is aimed at making older years more comfortable. Through life insurance and retirement savings, couples can make arrangements in anticipation of the worst while still hoping for a long life together without the early need for these policies and accounts.

When you are prepared for the death of a loved one — financially and emotionally — one major hurdle of moving on with life is knocked down. This is why financial planners and other financial experts suggest life insurance policies and carefully planned retirement savings. Some people do not plan ahead, either because the death is truly unexpected — such as in the case of an early death — or because life has gone by too quickly without time to slow down and discuss financial planning. Whether you are financially prepared for the death of a spouse or not, there are several important decisions to make and steps to take.

Sorting Out Another’s Finances

Some couples separate their finances, while others combine their accounts. Although many have joint ownership of accounts, some couples assign the bill paying and financial to management to one spouse. In this situation, the surviving spouse might not know passwords to online accounts or even have a full picture of their financial situation. Because of this, the first financial step may involve a great deal of detective work. This need for detective work is obviously heightened in the case where spouses keep their finances separate.

If you can access the deceased spouse’s computer, tablet, and smartphone, check for downloaded financial apps and bookmarked websites. Make a list of all that you are not aware of or do not have account numbers or logins. Reach out to an estate attorney and give them this list so that the institutions can be contacted officially.

Determine Existing Insurance Policies

Again, research may be required in some cases. Many employers offer life insurance as a fringe benefit, and even in cases where the employers do not pay for insurance, they may offer it as an optional out-of-pocket expense. Contact employers — either current ones or past ones — if your spouse was retired. They may provide you with a statement of benefits. Other situations that may involve unknown insurance include prior military service. Sometimes, a person works briefly for a state government or federal agency, which also can trigger lifelong benefits.

Beyond asking former and current employers, look through paperwork and computer bookmarks as well. Current insurance policies will have a premium payment requirement that could be monthly, quarterly, or annually. Look for these payments or withdrawals from checking accounts.

Determine If Estate Planning Was Done

Most likely, a spouse will know if there is a will in existence, as these matters are routinely discussed during life. If you haven’t discussed estate planning with your spouse, it is likely that there is no estate plan. This does not mean that all is lost, however. In the absence of a will, one’s estate generally passes through the laws of intestacy, and depending on the state in which you live, there are protections for spouses. Estate matters can be highly complex, however, so it’s best to leave these matters to professionals, such as estate planning attorneys.

Making Financial Decisions Going Forward

A spouse’s death may have come as a personal and financial shock. Use this experience to make for a softer landing in the event of your death by openly discussing finances with your children or other heirs. Speak to a financial professional who can help you manage your finances going forward. This is especially important in cases where a surviving spouse receives a death benefits windfall but needs the cash for the rest of their lives.

Death and finances are tricky subjects to tackle. Sometimes, though, life has a way of making us face difficult choices whether we’re ready for them or not.

Photo Credit: Unsplash


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