Smart and Loving Planning Helps Couples Prepare for Loss
Updated: Apr 26, 2020
Better Early than “Too Late” for End-of-Life Planning
Cindy’s husband of 34 years was sick for nearly a year before entering hospice at home. There were countless trips to the doctor’s office or hospital during this time. It was hard for her to watch Dick decline. Sure, some days he was stronger than others, but month after month he got weaker, which required Cindy to get tougher. Along with the social workers and nurse practitioners she cared for Dick and managed to keep the household running. Barely. Her adult children gave her respite at times during the week, but she still couldn’t rest – she just caught up on things to do. And there were always things to do.
Dick died at home. He had lost his ability to speak a few weeks before that, which made life more difficult. She didn’t know what he needed or how to make him more comfortable. He was too weak to write. She knew she was losing him but stayed strong to the very end. An army of family and friends descended on her and, in a blur, the funeral was behind her. She hadn’t thought about life after Dick for months and now the future – her future – lay ahead. She wondered what in the world she was supposed to do.
All marriages end at some point, but the most cherished marriages end with the death of a spouse. If you ask any widow or widower, most will tell you they knew it would happen someday, but they never planned for it to happen when it did. Being prepared for the practical part of losing a spouse makes the grieving easier, yet so few take the time to adequately prepare.
Merrill Lynch recently partnered with Age Wave, a thought leader in the study of aging, to conduct research on widowhood and how this loss can affect the surviving spouse’s life and finances. Among the key findings: men and women who prepare for losing a spouse fare much better in terms of stress and grieving, but a full 53% of current widows and widowers say they had no plan in place for what to do if one of them died.1
The survey also noted that only 14% of widows and widowers say they were making financial decisions by themselves before their spouse died. But once they are widowed, the overwhelming majority—86%—reported having to do so.2 What’s more, 69% of widows said “becoming the sole financial decision maker” was the top financial challenge of widows. Results from other studies were similar.
Given the findings, why aren’t more couples planning for the inevitable? Doing so would make things so much easier for the surviving spouse! Shouldn’t there be a commitment for easing the financial burden on our loved ones when we die?
A few months after the funeral Cindy contacted Wings for Widows, a non-profit group in the Twin Cities, Minn., that helps new widows navigate the financial shock of early widowhood. As the counseling proceeded it became clear that there were answers to questions she just didn’t know – things she should have known but never thought to ask Dick.
“I had all that time to get this stuff figured out, but I never got to it,” Cindy laments. “We talked about so many things but, after he was gone, I realized all the things we didn’t talk about.”
“We help spouses prepare for the future – including a future nobody wants to actually think about – by insisting they create a Legacy File,” says Chris Bentley, President of Wings for Widows. “This is the one file the surviving spouse needs after a loss. It is smart and loving planning for end-of-life.”
The Legacy File in not all-inclusive, but should especially contain information that might not be readily available after the loss of your spouse.
Things to know
· Contact information for your financial advisor(s)
· Contact information for your P&C insurance agent(s)
· Contact information for your life insurance agent(s)
· Contact information for your estate planning attorney
· Contact information for your CPA or other tax professional
· Contact information for your mortgage lender
· Contact information for your banker
Things to locate
· Marriage license
· Birth certificates (yours, your spouse’s, and your children’s)
· Passwords, including cell phone
· Club and online memberships, passwords (consider closing these)
· Post Office Box # for business, including key or combination
· Online banking access (best to change to paper statements)
· Online employer program (like 401(k)) access (most employees do not receive statements but have online access; get log-on info, which may require cell phone verification; if possible, opt-in for paper statements or use print screen to print the balance(s) and holdings
· If a veteran, locate military records including the DD Form 214, which must be submitted for veteran benefits
· If employed, locate employer benefits documents including employer-provided group life insurance, pension summary plan description and other benefit documentation
· Locate all personal credit and debit cards (you can use prior to death, but not afterwards)
· Are there any debts or loans in his/her name only (only he/she is legally responsible for these debts)?
· Safe deposit box, including key and authorization (best to empty the box , inventory the contents, and open one in your name if you need one at all)
· Gun or other safe, including key or combination
Things to discuss
· Children (there will be different discussions whether your children are adults, college students or minors in the household)
· Social media site(s) (discuss what to post and how long to keep the site(s) active)
· If self-employed, contact his/her business attorney to discuss a succession plan if one hasn’t already been developed (if you can’t locate a buy-sell or partnership agreements or shareholder documents on your own)
· Funeral arrangements (if not already stipulated in the Will and/or letters of instruction)
Things to do
· Consolidate bank, savings and investment accounts (this will greatly simplify life for your spouse)
· Add POD or TOD feature to all individual bank and investment accounts in his/her name only (this provides a beneficiary that will allow the accounts to bypass probate)
· Establish a cash reserve or emergency fund if you haven’t already (the estate will need liquidity for immediate financial needs)
· Ensure your Power-of-Attorney(s), Living Will(s) and Will & Last Testament are up to date
· Transfer airline miles while he/she is alive because it’s almost impossible to do later
One of the most difficult times in life is losing a loved one, a beloved spouse. We hope to hang on forever, often living in denial even when the end is near. This is perfectly natural. But unlike a sudden death event, an illness that results in palliative and/or hospice care often affords the family time to better prepare for the future.
“This window of opportunity may be many months or just a few weeks, but it can be a critical time for a couple to prepare if they haven’t already,” says Bentley. “We know from experience that even a little preparedness can provide comfort and peace to the dying spouse. And it will make a world of difference to the surviving spouse burdened with all the financial decisions.”
1 Merrill Lynch/Age Wave Widowhood Research, 2018.
2 The American College State Farm Center, Survey or Widows and Widowers Topline Report, July 2016.