The first days, weeks, and months of widowhood are so hard. And it doesn’t help that they’re also filled with plenty of questions to answer and decisions to make — many of which have to do with money.
It can feel overwhelming to have your team of two become a team of one, especially if your partner managed a good-sized chunk of the finances before they passed. As a financial advisor with Ellevest’s Private Wealth Management team, I’ve helped clients through this situation before. Here’s the advice I’ve gathered over the years that can help, for both the short term and the long.
Handle the small things first
There’s no need for big, sweeping financial decisions just yet — there are smaller steps you can take care of first.
Keep the lights on (literally)
First things first: This is hard and overwhelming, so let’s shorten your list of things to worry about to just what absolutely needs to happen to keep the ship running. Check your past bank and credit card statements to find any bills that need to be paid manually or that were set to auto-pay from your partner’s account. Make a list of what’s due and when, so that you don’t miss any.
As you go, be on the lookout for things that you could call and cancel — like your partner’s gym membership or magazine subscriptions.
Also, now’s the time to tell your partner’s credit card and / or loan providers that they’ve passed. This will help prevent identity fraud and keep you from missing any future charges that might accidentally get put on those cards.
After you’ve done those things to keep the lights on and the bills paid, take some time to honor your own grieving process. The rest of the things on this list can be done a little more slowly.
Make a master list of accounts
Next, you can dive in a little deeper and make yourself a master list of all your individual and joint accounts.
That includes things like the internet bill, the cable bill, and the electricity. For those, get your account numbers together and start contacting each provider to ask for a summary of where everything stands. Getting the lay of the land like this can be super helpful now and in the future.
This step also includes gathering up the details of your and your partner’s bank accounts, investment accounts, joint debts, insurance policies, and things like that. Again, let those companies know that your partner has passed. Some of the accounts might have a TOD (transfer on death) designation on them, which usually means the assets could pass directly to you without probate — and that could potentially save you time and help you check off some boxes amid what can feel like endless chaos.
Don’t stress about life insurance
Your partner might have had several life insurance policies, whether they purchased them on their own or got them through an employer. Those insurers might simply mail you a check. Or maybe there’s an insurance agent telling you what they think you should do with the money.
This could be a lot of money, and many women I’ve worked with in the past felt a serious sense of responsibility over it. My advice? Don’t let it worry you too much right now. If you feel unsure, you can always deposit the money into a savings account until you’re ready to meet with a financial advisor — who can give you advice about what to do with it in the long term. This isn’t a decision you should feel rushed into.
Take care of yourself
You just lost your teammate. What needs to be done around the house? Does the yard need to be maintained? Dog need to be walked? Do you want to take these things on yourself, or can (and should) you think about accepting help or hiring someone?
Ask yourself these questions as you put together a “budget” for your new reality. Your emotional needs are just as important as your financial needs. Time is a currency, too.
Put together your own list
This piece of advice comes from a widow I worked with in the past: Now’s a good time to assemble your own list of all the accounts and advisors that your friends and family will need to know about if anything happens to you.
I know that it might not sound like the most pleasant of tasks. But as you’ll undoubtedly notice as you go through this process yourself, your loved ones will really appreciate having all your financial info in one place when the time comes. It might be one of the greatest gifts you can leave behind for them. I also recommend bringing them into the conversation now — and keeping them in the loop as you work through future estate planning decisions.
Store your list in a place where it’s safe and private — perhaps even an electronic vault. Then make sure a few different people will know where and how to get it if need be.
Look out for scammers
This might sound sort of paranoid, but make no mistake — scammers are a very real threat. Yes, they are terrible humans for it, but these people know how chaotic your life is right now. They know that there are going to be a lot of decisions being made, and they know that you’re mentally exhausted. They know it’s a vulnerable time.
When you hear “scammer,” you might picture someone trying to sell you a fake product or something along those lines. But even harder to spot are people who are posing as someone you trust or someone who works for them — a fake financial advisor’s administrative assistant, a fake insurance agent’s secretary.
Do not send or transfer anyone any money until you verify their identity. Check emails extremely carefully for typos or anything that just seems off. And require people to call you on the phone to double-verify details about transactions, especially if they request any changes to the process or agreement.
Assemble your personal team of advisors
Finally, find your people and let them help you re-plan for the long term. This includes close friends, family members, and colleagues who can support you personally, but it also includes a set of professional advisors you trust who can work well together.
An estate attorney
Losing your partner probably means that your estate plan needs updating. If something were to happen to you, what would happen to your assets? Your estate attorney can help you decide who the best choices might be for things like the executor of your estate, power of attorney, titling of trusts, etc.
They can also take a look at all your ownership “structures” — meaning the location of your assets, like a trust. Getting this part nailed down early on can help your financial advisor build your financial plan much more smoothly, and potentially more effectively, too.
A general attorney
A general attorney can help you during the probate process as you sort through your partner’s will and estate. And they can work with your estate attorney to help you get your major documents updated — this includes your will, your healthcare proxy, and beneficiaries across all your financial accounts. They can also help you change the title to your home and your partner’s car and get those updated documents to your insurance companies.
When someone passes away, the estate will have special tax considerations. That’s where a good accountant can help out. Ask them to help you understand what you might owe and when — so that, if necessary, you can develop a clear plan for paying it.
A financial advisor
And next, people like me — a financial advisor who can help you sort through the plan for your assets as your needs (and your family’s needs) evolve. This is a difficult time. Talk to a financial advisor you trust … even if that means changing advisors or advisory firms.
You’ll probably be adding new assets into your finances, like your partner’s retirement accounts or life insurance payments. These additions will affect your overall financial outlook and plan. (Not to mention those retirement accounts might have IRS-required withdrawals that your financial advisor can help you understand so that you can avoid penalties.)
Your financial advisor can help you think through asset location (aka how and where your assets are held) and asset allocation (aka the appropriate blend of stocks, bonds, and alternatives to help you meet your financial goals). They can also help you optimize your financial approach so that you can minimize the effect of taxes and fees on your bottom line.
Plus, you’re probably going to have different future needs than you’d been planning for — paying for a retirement for one is a lot different than paying for a retirement for two. And then there are your long-term goals. For example, you might decide to downsize your home or move closer to other family members, like kids or grandkids. And you’ll probably also have different life insurance needs for yourself now that your partner won’t need those benefits.
Your financial advisor can also work closely with all the other advisors on your team to help look out for your best interests and make sure that decisions are coordinated from a structural, tax, and investment perspective.
I know that this might feel like a lot of information and a lot of things to do, but remember: There’s no need to rush through it all at once. Start at the top of this article and work your way down, one day at a time. Your future might look different from how you’d originally pictured it, but you’re strong — and you’ll get through this. I know it.
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