A Guide for the Surviving Spouse

Postpone making any changes in your life – i.e., selling your house for one year. Give yourself some time to regain emotional equilibrium; do not do anything “out of character”.

Collect the documentation needed to settle your spouse’s estate. This includes bank statements, current tax information, insurance policies, investment records, property deeds, and the will. Unless you and your spouse have discussed their whereabouts in advance, gathering the necessary documents may be difficult.

Check for all of the survivor benefits available to you. You may be entitled to pensions, social security, or veteran benefits. In addition to life insurance, determine whether other forms of insurance cover your loved one. Remember, credit life insurance may pay off some loans and credit card accounts.

Draw up a monthly budget that accounts for your sources of income and what you need for living expenses. If your spouse was the primary breadwinner, be especially cautious about your spending. If you find your expenses exceed your income, contact your creditors to find a way to pay debts over time and balance your budget.

Avoid making any large purchases or donations until you are sure of your financial security. Postpone making big charitable contributions. Wait until you have settled your spouse’s estate and paid all the fees; the worst thing would be realizing you did not have the money to be so generous.

Permit your family and friends to give you emotional support, but unless they are professionals, shy away from their financial or legal advice. Do not let emotions dictate your financial decisions. Advice that your late spouse gave you years ago may not be prudent anymore. Many resist changing their health insurers, after premiums swelled and coverage shrank, simple because your late spouse told you never to get rid of the policy.

Beware: Unsavory people take advantage of the bereaved; some people can be very seductive at a time when you are off guard. If someone comes into your life and shows an uncommon interest in your financial affairs, be cautious and keep that information to yourself.

Consult professionals for financial and legal assistance. Probate procedures can be confusing, depending on the size of the estate and the claims against it. It is difficult to think clearly under these circumstances, so it is important to seek trusted advice. If family members begin to argue among themselves about your spouse’s estate, refer them to your lawyer who can deflect the pressure.

Reexamine your own estate plan. You may want to rethink your own plan — where you want assets to go upon your death and who should handle your affairs. The death of your spouse requires changes in your own estate plan. Remember to select an executor who is both competent and willing to do the job; do not choose someone as though you are bestowing honor.

Tarta Law Firm NJSteven W. Tarta, Esq. brings more than 45 years of professional experience to his practice, with a sophisticated focus on Estate Tax Planning, Living Trusts and Elder Law.

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