Smart Financial Moves for Surviving Spouses

Here’s how one couple prepared for the worst and how one spouse coped with being a survivor.

Debra Weekley was surprised but not especially concerned when her husband, Mark Cartier, failed to call her from the parking lot after his early-morning climb on Mount Hood, near their home in Portland, Ore. Nor was she worried when a friend called to tell her a climber was down on the mountain; Cartier, an accomplished alpinist, often helped out on search missions. But when another friend called Weekley on behalf of the sheriff’s office to report that her husband had fallen to his death, the news hit her like a sledgehammer. “My brain couldn’t get around that this was happening,” she says.

Cartier, 56, had plummeted 1,000 feet from his perch on the mountain; the sheriff’s report concluded that a falling rock had caught him off guard. The night before, Weekley had had every reason to expect she would enjoy a decades-long future with her husband. Suddenly, she was thrust into the role of surviving spouse and single parent to the couple’s two teenage children, Lauren and Bryce. While struggling with her grief and shock, she also had to begin the process of tying up his affairs and starting over alone.

Whether it comes in a split second or after a long illness, the death of a wife or husband can have a devastating impact on the surviving spouse, both emotionally and financially. In most cases, that survivor is a woman. Widows outnumber widowers by a ratio of four to one.

Whoever the survivor, he or she is unlikely to be prepared to tackle the myriad details involved in unwinding a life. “It’s a world people aren’t familiar with, and it comes at a tough time, so it’s a double whammy,” says Mary Randolph, author of The Executor’s Guide (Nolo). As painful as it may be to anticipate the death of a spouse, you’re better off planning for that possibility now, she says, while you can still take steps to protect yourself from devastating financial repercussions.

Following the plan

Weekley learned of her husband’s death just as Bryce (then 17) walked in the door after a sleepover; it was the first day of his summer vacation, in June 2012. After calling Lauren (then 19) at the University of Missouri — “I heard the sound of a heart breaking over the phone,” Weekley says —she and Bryce headed to the mountain to claim the body.

Weekley and her husband had already discussed end-of-life wishes: “We each wanted to be cremated and have our ashes spread on the mountains,” she says. That afternoon, a mountain chaplain referred Weekley to a nearby funeral home that could pick up and cremate the body and deliver the ashes. She agreed to the arrangement on the spot. A few weeks later, she held a memorial service attended by 600 people at nearby Lewis and Clark College. That same month, family and friends scattered his ashes on Mount Hood.

Visiting Weekley four years after Cartier’s death, you’d be hard-pressed to imagine the emotional chaos of those early days. Her family room, painted in muted shades of gray and taupe, is absent the friends and relatives that crowded the space in the aftermath of Cartier’s death, and it makes for a serene contrast with the backyard garden, which bursts with intensely purple lilac bushes. The triptych hanging over the couch — at the center of which is a rendering of a stark, snow-covered mountain peak — is a testimony to her husband’s love of the outdoors.

But Weekley describes the days following her husband’s death as “excruciating.” Faced with planning a service that would draw friends and family members from around the country, she handed her credit card to Cartier’s sister and a close friend and relied on them to make many of the arrangements. The price — $13,000 for the reception on top of the $7,000 she paid for the cremation and related services — was hardly an anticipated expense, but “those decisions were the least of my concerns. At that point, I was just executing the plan.”

Luckily, that plan was already in place. Cartier had made his wife the sole beneficiary and executor of his estate (as she had for him), and copies of his will were accessible in a file labeled “legal.” Weekley, the more technologically savvy of the two, had set up her husband’s digital files and knew all his passwords and e-mail addresses. Because the couple jointly held almost all of their property, including bank accounts, she didn’t have to worry about having immediate access to cash.

Nor was health insurance a concern. The family had coverage from Cartier’s former employer through COBRA, the federal law that requires companies to offer health insurance to former employees and their family members. Because of Cartier’s death, the family coverage period was extended from 18 to 36 months. Weekley has since purchased a policy from the same insurer on her own.

The couple also had one major backup plan: life insurance. Cartier, who had recently left his job as director of footwear product development for Columbia Sportswear, had an insurance policy from the company that was still in effect. He and Weekley, a management consultant, each had another policy with enough coverage to preserve the status quo for at least three years. “I said, if one of us goes down, our responsibility to one another and to these kids is to maintain our way of life for at least that long,” says Weekley. Her husband’s high-risk hobby meant his premiums were five times the amount of hers.

Why the three-year time frame? Weekley’s business was thriving (Cartier was planning to consult and help run her business for two years and then retire). They had other assets, including college and retirement savings, and their kids were relatively close to leaving the nest. Five or 10 years later, they might have been OK skipping life insurance altogether, says Russ Thornton, a fee-only financial adviser in Atlanta, but parents with younger children need to plan much further out. “If one income is lost in the early years, it can completely wreck a family,” says Thornton. (For help calculating how much life insurance you need, see How Much Life Insurance to Buy.)

Settling the estate

Weekley’s dynamic personality is perfect for her consulting business, part of which involves team-effectiveness training. But when she began settling her husband’s estate, she struggled to identify what she needed to do and how to get help. “The paperwork was just daunting. Where do you start, what do you need to file?” she recalls wondering.

As she eventually discovered, settling an estate can be time-consuming and tedious, but it’s not necessarily complicated. The basic tasks involve gathering documents, identifying assets, notifying the appropriate people and agencies, closing accounts, paying bills and taxes, and distributing property. During the process, Weekley also filed for Social Security survivor benefits for Bryce, who qualified for the payments because he was still younger than 18.

One thing Weekley didn’t have to worry about was probate, the court process that supervises the administration of an estate. Life insurance and assets that are jointly titled or have designated beneficiaries or are designated as “payable on death” do not require probate; nor does property held in a revocable living trust (see Disinheriting a Child and Other Good Reasons for Getting a Living Trust ). Because everything in Cartier’s estate either was held jointly with right of survivorship or named his wife as beneficiary, the property went directly to her. That’s true for many surviving spouses, says David Handler, a partner in the trusts and estates practice group at Kirkland & Ellis, in Chicago. “In general, it’s a continuation. There’s less to do. Things are simpler with the first death in a couple than with the second,” he says.

Looking back on those first bewildering weeks, Weekley says she wishes she had had a team of professionals in place to step in and organize the process. In fact, she had the beginnings of a team in her financial planner, who provided a detailed analysis of her finances, and her accountant, who prepared income and business tax returns. Within two weeks, she also hired an estate-planning lawyer to file the tax returns for her husband’s estate and to revisit her own estate plan. Those three professionals represent the core of the surviving spouse’s team, says Beth Lynch, a certified financial planner (CFP) in Pittsburgh. “They’re the foundation for making sure everything is covered.”

Weekley could have used one more team member: a stand-in to perform routine or time-sensitive tasks she couldn’t bear to do herself. For example, immobilized after the initial adrenaline rush that followed her husband’s death, she failed to execute stock options from his former company within the 90-day time limit. “I needed to make some calls, and I just couldn’t do it.” She also went into a self-described “black hole” at the prospect of transferring titles and canceling subscriptions and memberships. “Anytime I had to take Mark’s name off something, it killed me,” she says.

You can’t delegate everything, but you can ask a trusted friend or relative to help with day-to-day business, such as canceling subscriptions or tracking down addresses. With other chores, simply waiting until you’re better able to cope can be the solution, says Jane Young, a CFP in Colorado Springs. “There are things you have to do right away, such as paying bills, and those that can happen over time, like transferring names.”

Adjusting to a new life

For all the challenges of unwinding a life, the bigger challenge comes later—in moving forward solo. In that respect, Weekley had an advantage: Because she and her husband had always co-managed their finances, she knew exactly where they stood financially. “We were a true partnership,” she says.

Not so for many surviving spouses, says Russ Thornton. “Even when both people in a marriage are earning an income, it often falls to one person to handle the finances and investments. Either the husband or wife seems a little less in the know.” Usually, the person out of the loop is the woman, he says. Rather than having to take a crash course in finances at the worst pos­sible time, he says, it’s better for both spouses to be up to speed on their finances (see What Women Need to Know About Money).

Although Weekley was well-equipped to take over the family finances, she missed having her husband’s input. The feeling of flying blind is common to new widows, says Young. “When you’ve been married and made a lot of decisions together, it takes a long time to feel you can make your own plan and make decisions on your own.”

One decision Weekley regrets is using part of the life insurance proceeds to retire the mortgage on their Bend, Ore., vacation home a year after her husband died. “Looking back, I should have kept the mortgage and invested the money. It was not a smart move,” she says. Surviving spouses are usually better off waiting two or even three years before making major decisions, including retiring a mortgage, moving, or spending a big chunk of a windfall, such as life insurance, says Young. “It takes that amount of time before the fog clears.”

For Weekley and her children, the fog has lifted, if not cleared altogether. Lauren has moved back to Portland and is happily employed at an ad agency; Bryce is a rising senior at Oregon State University; and Weekley’s consulting business is operating at full throttle. She takes comfort in knowing that Cartier “lived his life well” and that their planning as a couple has allowed the family to stay on course.

Still, she continues to feel the absence of her husband, partner and wingman. One small but painful reminder? Filling out the emergency-contact line on doctors’ forms. “We did everything jointly. He was always my backup,” she says. “As a single person, one of the hardest things for me is wondering, Who has my back now?”

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