Getting a plan in place and consolidating assets ahead of time can really help a surviving spouse af
MOST of us do not even want to contemplate the death of a spouse or partner — much less the prospect of having to take care of the financial end of such a loss while still grieving.
There are, however, plenty of details that people can attend to in advance that can avoid some measure of stress when the time comes. Most people tend to ignore or procrastinate over such tasks — for obvious reasons — but planning can certainly ease some avoidable financial sorrows.
The first step to prepare for this unhappy life stage is to make sure both partners have a thorough understanding of the couple’s spousal and individual assets and where they are. Are there life insurance policies? Do they name the right survivors as beneficiaries? What about pensions and other retirement plans? How will the money flow after someone’s death?
As all too many people find out too late, this sort of preparation should start well before either spouse becomes disabled or dies. The general principle is to protect the survivor and enable him or her to make decisions about the estate’s assets.
That means setting up a durable power of attorney for health care and finances — two separate documents, one set for each spouse. You don’t need a lawyer to put these in place, but they should be signed so that one spouse can make medical and financial decisions if the other is incapacitated.
One couple who went through this exercise, Erika and John Lupo of Sparta, N.J., did so sooner than most, and it paid off. When Mr. Lupo died of cancer last year at age 57, Ms. Lupo, 51, who runs an acting school, was extraordinarily well prepared — unlike many widows.
In his final days, Mr. Lupo, a former salesman, did everything he could to prepare his estate and make sure his wife knew where his assets were — and how they could be bequeathed to her and heirs.
“We had everything in place,” she said. “I had no idea how to do any of this. They guided me seamlessly.”
There was a bit of complex estate and financial planning involved, because Mr. Lupo had a daughter from a previous marriage, and the couple has a teenage son.
Working with Mark Germain, a certified financial planner with Beacon Wealth Management in Hackensack, N.J., Mr. Lupo had several documents in order just a few weeks before he died.
“We made out wills, durable powers of attorney and a trust” for Mr. Lupo’s daughter, Mr. Germain said. “We also made some arrangements for the son in the will. We had to do some sophisticated planning.”
For Mr. Lupo’s widow, the advance planning came as a great relief even as she mourned her husband. “We had everything in place,” she said. “I had no idea how to do any of this. They guided me seamlessly.”
Organization of one’s estate will certainly not lessen the emotional turmoil, but it will smooth the way to financial security in the fog of grief.
More than 800,000 Americans lose their spouses each year, and 700,000 of them are women, according to the Census Bureau. Because women generally outlive men, they spend an average of 14 years without a spouse. There are now more than 14 million widows and widowers, accounting for about one-quarter of the over-65 population.
Although in the past, one spouse — usually the husband — “took care” of all of the financial planning, Mr. Germain said, most people don’t do a very good job of it. That traditional role is often a smoke screen for partial preparation and keeping one’s spouse largely in the dark, he said.
“Don’t think of an estate plan as a ‘death’ plan,” Mr. Germain advised. “I try to get that out of my clients’ minds. Many people don’t have a clue as to what will happen with an estate after death.” One client, he said, a 72-year-old man, changed ownership of his assets while his wife was dying, creating financial chaos.
But times are clearly changing when it comes to traditional gender roles. “Twenty years ago, the average husband did all of the finances,” said Catherine Anne Seal, a Colorado Springs-based estate planninglawyer and the president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. “Now it’s not uncommon for the wife to handle finances.”
Widows who are inexperienced with money management tend to make a common mistake, Ms. Seal said: They “make imprudent gifts to adult children” within a year of their husband’s death. Down the road, this may leave the widow short of money, depending on how long she survives her husband.
Ms. Seal advises that couples title their assets “jointly with rights of survivorship,” particularly if their joint estate is under $4 million.
But estate planning becomes more complex if there are multiple marriages and stepchildren involved.
“Couples in second marriages need good estate planning with attorneys who understand these issues,” Ms. Seal said.
Such professionals can provide a checklist of what both spouses should know: Where are the documents relating to Social Security? Insurance policies?
Marriage and birth certificates? Wills? Powers of attorney? Living trusts? It is also important to have a list of all assets, such as real estate, stocks, bonds, savings accounts, safe deposit boxes and trusts.
Also on the to-do list: locating the titles to all properties, ranging from autos to vacation homes. Veterans should have copies of all military discharge papers.
Another vital step is to appoint capable, financially skilled trustees in your powers of attorney, Mr. Germain said. They could be family members, but they should have some working knowledge of how to handle money.
The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys has a searchable online directory for people who want to find a lawyer who can help handle these complexities. When interviewing prospective lawyers, ask them if they specialize in the particulars of your situation: Are you divorced? Do you have a special-needs child? Do you have properties in several states?
You should also involve your tax planner and financial planner — if you have them. A certified financial planner who acts as fiduciary can work directly with your accountant and family lawyer.
At the root of a transparent estate plan, most lawyers say, is openness and communication. Both spouses should attend the meetings with lawyers and financial professionals. And each spouse should know the location of all important documents and understand what will happen upon death.
Contingency plans should be made in the event one spouse becomes disabled or incapacitated. Prepare a workable estate plan while you are healthy. Cognitive decline can take its toll on couples’ abilities to manage and execute an estate plan.
“Most people are in denial about what the aging process looks like,” Ms. Seal said. “That’s why you need trustworthy agents in your powers-of-attorney documents. You need to create a plan for incapacity.”
Ms. Lupo of New Jersey emphatically agrees. “Realize that you need to take the time to understand your finances,” she said. “When you’re well — that’s when you need to plan.”