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Guide to Financial Literacy for the Newly Widowed

When the email arrived on an early Saturday morning from a client of more than 20 years, my heart sank. Her husband who recently entered hospice care had passed away that morning. Even though I’ve walked this path with many clients, it is still heartbreaking each time. There is so much that the surviving spouse must cope with, and those first few weeks and months can be overwhelming, especially regarding developing a new sense of financial literacy.

Fortunately, support groups, books, and other resources for the newly widowed are available. While books are helpful, the surviving spouse often doesn’t have the time or energy to read them. Meeting with a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional can help the surviving spouse and family navigate through the to-do list in those weeks and months ahead. Several clients have asked for something in a checklist form, and here is what I have assembled over the years:

Prior to Death:

  • Discuss post-mortem wishes.
  • Gather all estate planning documents (e.g.., will, health care proxy, power of attorney) and use sticky notes to highlight topics or items that you have questions about.
  • Check beneficiary designations.
  • Understand your current cash flow situation — do you have an adequate cash reserve?
  • Take stock of all your accounts — how they are titled and what are the current balances?
  • Meet with your financial planner, CPA, and estate planning attorney.

Immediately After Death:

  • Inform friends and family members.
  • Contact funeral home to plan services and write the obituary.
  • For veterans or public servants, contact the appropriate agency/administration as ceremonial items may be available for the service.
  • Arrange for the care of any pets.
  • Obtain 15-20 copies of the death certificate.
  • Inform your financial planner, CPA, and estate planning attorney.
  • Save all receipts related to the burial as some expenses may be reimbursed by the estate.
  • · For COVID-19 related deaths, contact FEMA, which has a generous reimbursement program.

Within a Few Weeks:

  • Contact insurance providers and request necessary claim forms.
  • Ensure that your health insurance will continue.
  • If applicable, contact the decedent’s employer and inquire about any benefits.
  • Contact the Social Security Administration to inquire about benefits eligibility.
  • Meet with the attorney to discuss probate and/or the estate settlement process.
  • Verify that you have credit cards issued in your name, as any cards not issued in your name will be cancelled.
  • Meet with an accountant about filing a final tax return.
  • Meet with a financial planner to discuss which assets may need to be retitled.
  • Contact the financial institutions where the decedent had accounts and ask for a date of death value.

Within Two Months:

  • Update estate documents.
  • Update beneficiary designations.
  • Distribute decedent’s personal effects.

There is obviously a lot that needs to be done, but it is important that you refrain from making any life-changing decisions in the year following a death. You are still navigating the grief process, and you may not have a clear picture of how you want to move forward.

One other item that you may find helpful: Start taking notes of what you do every day. If you called the insurance agent one day, be sure to note when you called, who you spoke with and what you talked about. If you cancelled a credit card, note that as well, and so on. As you progress through the grieving process, you may occasionally find yourself in a fog and it helps to have a record of what you have done and why.

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Estate Planning Entering Midlife