EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.
The death of a spouse is one of the most devastating events of a person's life. To make matters worse, at a time when you feel incapable of dealing with life's routines, you're slammed with an avalanche of financial tasks that require immediate attention. This can be particularly stressful if the surviving spouse, usually the wife, did not play an active role in the household finances.
But despite the pressure to do so, this is precisely the wrong time to make major financial decisions. If you act precipitously, you may make costly mistakes that will be tough to unwind later. "I tell my clients that they should be in a decision-free zone for six months to a year," says Karen Folk, a certified financial planner in Urbana, Ill.
Don't put your house on the market. Don't give away money to your children or charity. Don't sell stocks or bonds. And don't agree to move in with an adult child, says Folk. Eventually, any of these steps may make perfect sense. But take a breather in the overwhelming weeks and months after a spouse dies.
One other no-no: Don't allow a salesperson to talk you into buying financial products, such as an annuity or life insurance. "Ambulance chasers will catch you when you are vulnerable," warns Kathleen Rehl, a certified financial planner in Land O'Lakes, Fla. Rehl wrote Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows (Rehl Financial Advisors, $20) after the death of her husband in 2007.
To drive home her point, Rehl recounts the story of a widowed client who was paid a visit by an insurance agent. The agent came to deliver the proceeds from her husband's life insurance policy, and he persuaded her to sign over the check for a new policy that she did not need.
A case in point for not making big decisions soon after a spouse's death is Maureen Saunders. The financial chores following the death of her husband, Hubert, from pancreatic cancer in 2006 at age 65 were crushing enough. Although Saunders, now 58, balanced the checkbook, her husband was the main financial decision-maker, especially when it came to investments. His death left her "in uncharted waters, not only emotionally and spiritually but also financially."
Saunders had to wrangle with the life insurance company, which didn't believe she was her husband's beneficiary. She had a "total meltdown" in the bank when she discovered, after bouncing some checks, that the Social Security Administration had rescinded Hubert's latest direct-deposit benefit payment. She proved that her husband died after the deadline to be eligible for that month's payment, but it took weeks for the government to return the money. She did not realize that she would not be eligible for a survivor benefit until she turned 60. "You're so vulnerable and raw, and there is always another form to fill out," says Saunders, who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The checklist below can help surviving spouses figure out which tasks to address early on. The tips apply to husbands and wives.
Gather the documents. If your late spouse ran the household finances, it would be great if he left behind an organized filing system as well as all the passwords you need to access computer files. But if you need to dig through the piles yourself, Rehl recommends starting a filing system using colored manila folders. Among the headings: banking, bills, credit-card statements, taxes, life insurance policies and estate documents.
You'll need to gather Social Security numbers, birth and marriage certificates, military discharge papers, company benefits booklets, car titles, powers of attorney, and current statements for bank, brokerage and retirement accounts.