retirement

6 Tips for Those Who Have Lost a Spouse

From the practical to the emotional, here is some advice to help you get through the first year (or two) of your journey.

The loss of a spouse can be one of the most difficult times in a person’s life. Living through my own loss, I have learned from others and appreciate all those who dedicate themselves to helping individuals in their state of bereavement.

In our work with widows and widowers, we typically encourage them to build a “circle of support.” Experienced, caring professionals can have helpful advice before and after a death.

The following is professional advice from two experts I count on with helpful tips for someone who might have recently lost their significant other.

1. Follow the money trail.

The loss of your spouse is difficult enough, but now you are faced with the aftermath of the things you need to do to continue on with your life and your grief simultaneously. If you were not the one handling the family finances then start by going through the various expenses paid and the income received. Make sure you understand each expense and income item and whether it is a one-time or recurring income or expense. Make sure you have enough cash on hand to cover your recurring expenses over the next several months. Be sure to cancel unwanted recurring expenses of your spouse, such as medical insurance, subscriptions and club dues, seek partial refunds, if available, as soon as possible. Keep a joint checking account open for at least one year to accommodate potential odd refunds and expenses.
— John Muldoon, CPA, MST

2. Practice sorting and prioritizing to-do lists.

Make a list of everything on your mind. Include everything you think you need to do, everything you’re worrying or thinking about, and everything other people seem to think you should do. Then prioritize the items on that list. The only urgent items on your list are those that will damage some part of your well-being if you don’t do them right this minute. While some other tasks may feel urgent, they can and should be deferred, leaving you room to back up and turn around. Focus initially only on the few items that are truly urgent and immediate. All the rest can be divided between a soon list and a later list.
— Susan Bradley, founder of the Sudden Money Institute

3. Gather critical documents.

Bank accounts, brokerage and retirement accounts, credit card statements, tax returns, life insurance policies, motor vehicle titles, birth certificates, death certificates (you will need several duplicate copies of the death certificate for financial and tax matters to facilitate change of ownership), your marriage certificate, Social Security numbers and estate planning documents, such as a will, trusts and any powers of attorney executed. Appraisals for real estate, businesses owned and substantial personal or unique assets may be required for tax purposes.

If your spouse was employed, review company benefits plans and understand your responsibilities and benefits available to you via your deceased spouse. There may be pension benefits, 401(k) plan (possibly roll it into your own IRA), life insurance, vacation or sick pay, bonus or stock options or funds left in flexible spending accounts available to you. If you were covered by your spouse’s company medical plan, you can likely continue to be covered under COBRA for a monthly premium. If your spouse was collecting Social Security, the agency should be notified of his or her passing. You will no longer receive a benefit payment the following month, but if you do (because of timing) you will be required to return the payment at a later date.
— John Muldoon, CPA, MST

4. Customize meetings with your adviser.

It’s normal to feel exhausted by all that you’re suddenly facing both personally and financially. And when you’re tired, focus, information processing, recall and decision-making all suffer. Make a list of areas of your financial life that are making you feel most afraid or least confident. Tell your adviser that during this time you can only handle relatively short meetings, during which you learn about the most important aspects of your new financial situation one (or perhaps two) topics at a time.
— Susan Bradley, founder of the Sudden Money Institute

5. Seek professional help.

This is especially true if significant financial assets have been accumulated in the marriage, such as real estate, investments or a business that was owned or partially owned by your spouse. While you can still elect to file a joint tax return with your deceased spouse in the year of death, an additional income tax return (Form 1041) may be needed for your spouse’s post death activity for the remainder of the calendar year. And if assets involved are valued in excess of $11.2 million (2018) at the date of death, an IRS Form 706 may be required nine months from the decedent’s DOD.
— John Muldoon, CPA, MST

6. Remind yourself that what you’re experiencing isn’t forever.

Many widows say the first two years are the most difficult; they caution first-year widows to be prepared for the second year when it may feel like there is no end. But, believe it or not, like spring finally emerging after a long, hard winter, eventually the grief and confusion will fade enough that you can begin to look forward and dream again. You will sense the change as it approaches, and you will feel it as it grows. If you have the right advisers, you can ask for some help dreaming and maybe financially testing ideas and possibilities. Take your time; you and your dreams may need room to grow.
— Susan Bradley, founder of the Sudden Money Institute

On a personal note, unlike most people who have lost a spouse, I did not need financial planning advice, however, I found the care and support I received from both John and Susan invaluable.

About the Author

Barbara Shapiro, CFP®, CDFA®, CeFT

President, HMS Financial Group

Barbara Shapiro is the President of HMS Financial Group located in Dedham, Mass. She is a CFP®, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst and a Financial Transitionist®. She is also co-author of "He Said: She Said: A Practical Guide to Finance and Money During Divorce." Her firm specializes in comprehensive financial planning with a subspecialty in divorce that assists clients' transition from marriage to independence with peace of mind and confidence. Learn more at HMS-Financial.com.

Securities and Advisory Services offered through Cadaret, Grant & Co., Inc., a Registered Investment Adviser and Member FINRA/SIPC. HMS Financial Group and Cadaret, Grant & Co., Inc. are separate entities.

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