Now You Are Executor of your Spouse’s Estate, What Happens Next?
Frustrated widow as exector

Now You Are Executor of your Spouse’s Estate, What Happens Next?

The loss of a spouse after decades of marriage is crushing enough, but then you are thrust into the role of executor. There comes a tsunami of decisions about your deceased spouse’s estate. What does an executor do? There are decisions about finances and tasks that demand attention, when you are least able to manage it. Even highly successful business owners can find themselves overwhelmed, says The New York Times in the article “You’re a Widow, Now What?”

Most couples tend to divide up tasks, where one handles investments and the other pays the bills.  However, moving from a team effort to a solo one is not easy. For one widow, the task was made even harder by the fact that her husband opted to keep his portfolio in paper certificates, which he kept in his desk. His widow had to hire a financial advisor and a bookkeeper, and it took nearly a year to determine the value of nearly 120 certificates. That was just one of many issues.

She had to settle the affairs of the estate as executor, deal with insurance companies, banks and credit cards that had to be cancelled. Her husband was also a partner in a business, which added another layer of complexity.

She decided to approach the chaos of being executor as if it were a business. She worked on it six to eight hours a day for many months, starting with organizing all the paperwork. That meant a filing system. A grief therapist advised her to get up, get dressed as if she was going to work and to make sure she ate regular meals. This often falls by the wayside, when the structure of a life is gone.

This widow opened a consulting business to advise other widows on handling the practical aspects of settling an estate and also wrote a book about it.

A spouse’s death is one of the most emotionally wrenching events in a person’s life. Women live longer statistically, so they are more likely than men to lose a spouse and have to get their financial lives organized. The loss of a key breadwinner’s income can be a big blow for those who have never lived on their own. The tasks come fast and furious, in a terribly emotional time.

Widows may not realize how vulnerable they are, after the death of their long-time spouses. They need to hold off on any big decisions and attack their to-do list in stages. The first task is to contact the Social Security administration, call the life insurance company and pay important bills, like utilities and property insurance premiums. If your husband was working, contact his employer for any unpaid salary, accrued vacation days and retirement plan benefits.

Next, name your adult children, trusted family members, or friends as agents for your financial and health care power of attorney.

How to take the proceeds from any life insurance policies, depends upon your immediate cash needs and whether you can earn more from the payout by investing the lump sum. Make this decision part of your overall financial strategy, ideally with a trusted financial advisor.

Determining a Social Security claiming strategy comes next. Depending on your age and income level, you may be able to increase your benefit. If you wait until your full retirement, you can claim the full survivor benefit, which is 100% of the spouse’s benefit. You could claim a survivor benefit at age 60, but it will be reduced for each month you claim before your full retirement age. If both spouses are at least 70 when the husband dies, a widow should switch to a survivor benefit, if her benefit is smaller than his.

Expect it to be a while, until you feel like you are on solid ground. If you were working when your spouse passed, consider continuing to work to keep yourself out and about in a familiar world. Anything that you can do to maintain your old life, like staying in the family home, if finances permit, will help as you go through the grief process.

Learn how a revocable living trust can avoid thrusting your widowed spouse into the role of executor.

Reference: The New York Times (April 11, 2019) “You’re a Widow, Now What?”

Planning for the Sad Truth of Growing Old Together

If it’s any comfort, there are now some 20 million widows and widowers in America, according to a study from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave that focuses on widowhood, as reported by CBS News’ Moneywatch in “A retirement planning must-do for married couples.” The study, “Widowhood: The Loss Couples Rarely Plan for—and Should” takes a detailed look at what happens, when the first spouse dies.

It should be noted that women are three times as likely as men to be the surviving spouse, since women historically tend to live longer. Widowers tend to marry younger women, leaving many older women to need to learn how to live as senior singles.

More than half of all of those surveyed who had lost a spouse, said they had not planned for it.  More than three-quarters of married retirees said they would not be financially prepared for retirement, if their spouse passed away.

Losing a spouse is the hardest thing for married people, particularly if they have never been single. Some 75% of those who had lost a spouse, said it was the single hardest thing they’d ever had to deal with. Half of them experience a household decline in income of 50%—or more. Adjusting to that loss of income is a big concern.

When the first spouse passes, the surviving spouses report that they were overwhelmed with paperwork and didn’t know how to begin.

You can plan for this unpleasant eventuality, and you should. Just as having an estate plan in place will help loved ones, planning for one of you to become widowed will help the other.

What should couples do in advance?

  • Know what all your assets and accounts are and how to access all accounts.
  • Make sure both names are on all accounts and deeds.
  • Be able to access cash.
  • Keep credit card debt separate.

Here’s some advice from the surviving spouses:

  • Avoid making big decisions, until at least a year has passed.
  • Find all important documents and pay bills on time.
  • Notify banks, financial advisors and employers.
  • Reevaluate your retirement strategy, following a financial audit of your new situation.
  • Update your estate plan and check all beneficiary designations.

Losing a spouse is a difficult and painful experience.  However, many people report that afterwards they found courage and strength they never knew they had and are living a full and rewarding life.

Reference: CBS Moneywatch (Sep. 12, 2018) “A retirement planning must-do for married couples”