Money, Markets and Mortality

I won’t go into the unpleasant details and I’ll keep their identities private, but two of my close friends recently lost their respective wives to cancer. Both women died, days apart. For nearly 40 years, these couples were like family to me.

My grief-stricken pals have been asking me for advice, to deal with the financial aftermath. That’s how I got the idea for my column today.

Ask yourself a brutal question: “What if my spouse dies unexpectedly?”

Human beings tend to shove unpleasant possibilities into the back of their minds, but you shouldn’t ignore any scenario that can dramatically affect your net worth.

The sad experience of my male friends notwithstanding, women are particularly vulnerable in this situation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average age of widowhood is 55.

This surprising fact, coupled with women’s longer life expectancy of 79.5 years, means that it’s possible a woman can expect to live as a widow for as many as 20-plus years.

The first challenge to confront is logistical. In a crisis, you don’t want to find yourself scrambling from the start.

Could you find all of the crucial documents vital to your family’s financial future and security? Do you know where they are? Do you even know what they are?

Perhaps your family’s financial papers are littered about the house in various locations, or in someone else’s house or office. Are they in a file cabinet, in a box in the attic, in a safe deposit box at the bank?

Find them and put them in a central location that you, your spouse and your adult children can easily access.

How difficult would it be for you to create an inventory of your assets? Track down the deeds and titles to automobiles and real estate as well as personal income tax returns and life insurance contracts…the whole gamut.

Do you have a will? Is it updated? Having a will and knowing where it is can save you a lot of the needless hassle of going through probate.

According to the polling firm Harris Interactive, 55% of Americans die without a will. If your spouse leaves no will or you simply can’t find one, your spouse will have died “intestate,” which means that all assets not jointly owned will be probated.

Probate is the legal process of transferring assets in an estate. The process includes paying final funeral expenses, estate debts and taxes, creating an inventory of assets owned at death, and finally, disbursing remaining assets to heirs as specified by state law.

Closely examine beneficiary designations on your family’s assets. This is an often-overlooked step.

Many survivors are shocked to discover that beneficiary designations on financial assets (checking, savings, retirement funds, etc.) supercede any will.

This means that, upon proof of death, financial assets are automatically transferred to the designated beneficiary of record, even if a will specifically states that all assets should be left to the spouse. This situation often leads to acrimonious family conflicts that wind up in court.

The Post-Mortem Checklist

Prepare ahead of time, by familiarizing yourself with the following steps now:

Order at least a dozen certified death certificates from the funeral home. Each financial institution that you must deal with will require an original copy. Get your copies ordered and ready.

Contact all income sources about your spouse’s death. They need to know right away, preferably from you. Those you should contact include his/her employer, his/her pension fund, managers for all Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA) and 401k plans, insurance companies, health insurers, banks, and brokers.

Immediately notify the U.S. Social Security Administration of your spouse’s death, to get whatever retirement or survivor’s benefits to which you are eligible. The earliest you can receive Social Security survivor benefits is age 60. Stay abreast of Social Security rules changes.

Read This Story: Social Security: The “Third Rail” No More

As the surviving widow or widower, you can collect a survivor’s benefit as early as age 60. After your spouse dies, you will keep getting the larger of your Social Security benefit, or your spouse’s, but not both.

A surviving spouse living in the same household is entitled to receive from the Social Security Administration a one-time lump sum payment of $255 upon the death of their spouse. Married couples can maximize the highest earning spouse’s benefit by delaying collection of that spouse’s benefit until age 70, thereby creating a de facto form of life insurance.

Determine survivor/orphan eligibility for your children. If you are a survivor and have children under the age of 16 in your household, you may collect Social Security survivor benefits for yourself, and orphan benefits for your children.

Since you’re probably the beneficiary listed on your spouse’s IRA, you have the right to switch it to a “spousal IRA.” Depending on your age, IRS rules governing a spousal IRA enable you to either continue receiving income payouts, or delay receiving payouts and creating a “stretch IRA,” allowing tax-deferred growth for future years.

As the surviving spouse, you may be entitled to continue receiving your husband or wife’s pension income, if he or she had picked “joint annuity” pay out. Regardless, depending on the rules, you might have to accept a lower rate. Ask a financial advisor to help you explore your options.

Protect your identity. Now that your spouse is gone, you’re even more vulnerable to identity theft. Sophisticated thieves often steal the identities of the deceased. Change all personal identification numbers and passwords related to banks, mutual funds, credit, ATM and debit cards, as well as all other computer security systems that govern your investments and finances. Cancel all jointly held credit cards and apply for brand new ones, solely in your name.

Put your death payouts to work, tax-free. All death benefit payouts from your spouse’s life insurance are tax free to the beneficiary. Consider investing these payouts for future income.

No one likes to think about death, but planning is the process of preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

Editor’s Note: When a life crisis hits, such as the death of a spouse, you’ll need as big a nest egg as possible. You owe it to yourself…and your family.

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John Persinos is the editorial director of Investing Daily.

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