Because losing a spouse is commonly considered to be the most stressful event which can happen in a person’s lifetime, the surviving spouse faces the dilemma of needing to make clear financial decisions while dealing with the trauma of this loss. This “Do’s and Don’ts” checklist will help give direction to those who are navigating these rough waters.
Do not make any major financial decisions for one year.
You need time to grieve, so decide up front that major decisions will just have to wait. Why? Because you could make some major mistakes by acting before you have the clarity of mind to think these issues through.
By major decisions, I mean do not: sell your house, give away large sums of money to children or charities, sell stocks, or agree to move in with an adult child. Any of these decisions may eventually be appropriate, but, for now, put them on hold and allow yourself time to grieve.
Do not let a salesman talk you into buying financial products.
It is sad, but true, that some ambulance chasers will try to sell financial products (such as life insurance or annuities) at a time when the widow or widower is most vulnerable.
Be on guard and don’t apologize for a firm no.
Although making big decisions should be avoided, some financial actions will need attention.
This checklist of “do’s” should help:
If you need help, ask for it.
Remember all of those people who said, “If you need anything at all, just let me know”? If you simply aren’t up to organizing your finances, don’t hesitate to ask a friend, a family member or a trusted financial planner for help.
Susan B. Garland, in Kiplinger’s Retirement Report, recommends locating and organizing Social Security numbers, birth and marriage certificates, military discharge papers, company benefits booklets, car titles, power of attorney and current bank, brokerage and retirement account statements. Your funeral director can help you obtain copies of your spouse’s death certificate (get 10 to 15), which will be needed for a variety of reasons.
Stay current on your bills.
If your spouse used to pay those bills, you will need to find the checkbook or an online account in order stay current on your payments and avoid possible late fees. If you aren’t sure about mortgage payments, car payments or insurance premiums, ask your lenders for copies of current statements. Be sure to open all mail, because it is not unlikely that you could overlook some bills. If you inadvertently miss some payments, contact the creditor, explain your situation and ask that late fees and penalties be dropped. Remember: if you are feeling overwhelmed, ask a friend or family member to help you.
Prevent unneeded payments.
Notify Medicare and other health insurance companies that you will no longer be paying your spouse’s premiums. Cancel magazine subscriptions and club memberships you no longer need.
Collect life insurance benefits.
Hopefully, you can locate the life insurance policy, but if you can’t, and you don’t have an agent, scrutinize your check book for payments to an insurance company. If you still can’t track down the life insurance information, you can try a policy locator service, which, for a fee, will help find the insurance provider. Again, you can ask your funeral director for advice.
Understand your cash flow.
I realize working on a budget may sound overwhelming right now, but as you better understand how your monthly cash flow works, you will also develop a peace about knowing how your household finances work. Now, not later, is the best time to discover if you are spending more than you are taking in. Start by writing down every income source you can think of (Social Security, pension payments, IRA distributions, job earnings, etc), then list your fixed payments such as mortgage payment, utilities, insurance payments, groceries, etc. You can do this, and you will be glad you did.
Talk to your Social Security office.
I recommend that you make an appointment and visit your office in person. The agent you meet with will be able to explain exactly where you stand in regard to your own Social Security benefit, your survivor benefit, what age you are able to draw these benefits, and how much they will be. Social security is complicated, but your agent will be able to help you understand what to expect.
Do what you can, but don’t stress about what you can’t do. You are going through one of the toughest periods of time you will ever experience, so take it one day at a time. Although one never fully recovers from losing a spouse, people do eventually learn to adapt.
As the fog lifts, you will, in due course, learn to adapt.
If you are a surviving spouse, what tips would you emphasize to those who recently lost their spouses? To all: what additional tips would you suggest?