Because You Asked: How Can I Prepare in Advance for a Spouse’s Death?

I received a call from a widow this week who had encountered one of our clients in her grief group.  She wanted to know how we did things differently because she said that her experience and what our client shared were very different in dealing with the financial aftermath of losing their spouses. We spoke in general terms of course to protect our client’s privacy, but I explained that during the progression of our work with clients, we approach their financial needs from the perspective of life needs, goals, and dreams, and generally view money as a tool to fulfill a plan.

The implication here is that there is a plan.  This plan is not a static product that we apply, but rather one we develop over time, working in concert with each client.  A part of every plan that is not easy to address, but is a necessity, is “What happens when one of us dies?”  While every client has different needs and priorities, there are a number of actions that can be applied to most couples, so we thought we would share a checklist of sorts for steps to take before someone dies. It is important to understand that we don’t have to wait until we are sick or have a serious or terminal illness but to make preparations while we are in good shape, both physically and mentally.

Some individuals create a reference notebook of all of their relevant data, and some keep the info in a file on a computer, etc.  The point is to build a reference file and let your spouse and possibly another trusted individual such as an adult child, know how to access the information.  The type of info that should be included is:

Names and Contact Information for Key Advisors:

  • Attorney
  • Advisor- Financial Advisor, CFP®, etc.
  • Banker
  • Insurance Agent(s)
  • Pastor or spiritual leader
  • Physician(s)
  • Tax Preparer: EA/CPA
  • Trust Officer

Financial Assets: Start with a list and try to include annual statements with each of these.

  • Bank account numbers, how titled, locations, and how to access current statements
  • Insurance Contracts: Property and Casualty, Life Insurance, Annuities, Burial Policies, Pre-paid Funeral, Long-term Care, etc.
      • ALL Insurance contracts should be located somewhere safe: filing cabinet with a lock (make sure your spouse knows where the key is!), a safe, safe deposit box, etc.
      • Some insurance claims will be filed upon death, while others will need to be updated or canceled. It is helpful to have a summary list of all insurance information and contracts.
      • Investment Accounts: how to access each with login and passwords if virtual. Otherwise provide the owner of each account, along with account numbers, custodians, and contact persons.
      • Brokerage- Individual, Joint, etc.
      • Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), Roth IRAs, Simple, SEP, etc.
      • Employer Plans such as 401(k), 403(b), etc.
  • Sources of Income:
      • Pension- how much and source
      • Social Security- list your date of birth and social security number
      • Investment Income- source and amounts
      • Royalties- a recent statement can be very helpful, along with contact information.
      • Other: This could be from a trust, etc.

Special Note: Review Beneficiaries.  A general recommendation is to keep these records and your list as current as possible and to review them regularly, at least annually.  Another critical action is to name and review beneficiaries, both primary and contingent for Insurance Contracts, Investment & Pension accounts, and all bank accounts. Reviewing beneficiaries is a step that too frequently gets overlooked when circumstances change: marriages, divorces, births, deaths; even updating an estate plan may alter beneficiaries.

Property: Titles, Deeds, Financing

  • Homes, vacation homes, etc.- with mortgage information
  • Autos & other vehicles: with leasing and/or payment information
  • RV’s, boats, etc.
  • Time Share Property
  • Business ownership information

Estate-related Documents: review at least every five years, or after major life changes.

  • Wills
  • Trust documents
  • Advanced Directives
  • HIPAA Release
  • Powers of Attorney documents for Financial and Medical

Other Important Information:

  • Personal Computer: someone needs to know how to access the information on your computer- passwords, etc., as well as your other digital accounts, including social media.
  • Tax Returns – Keep five years of tax returns accessible
  • Family budgets, including when, where and how payments are made
  • Credit Cards with account numbers and outstanding balance if any
  • Other debts, loans, etc.
  • Personal Documents:
    • Passports
    • Drivers’ licenses
    • Marriage certificates
    • Divorces decrees, Child Support
    • Birth certificates
    • Armed forces records

While you are at it: Make a list with phone numbers of all of the home maintenance and repair persons that you routinely use.  It reduces stress when trying to find the answer to the “Who do I call for plumbing?” questions.

Taking on the challenge and taking the time to gather all of this information and review it with your loved ones, while difficult is a very worthwhile and very loving course of action.  They will bless your memory for having the foresight and wisdom to gather all of the information that will help them cope so much easier after you are no longer there to help.

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