No one wants to think about losing their spouse. While it’s only natural to resist contemplating such a heart-wrenching event, it’s important to recognize that during a period of grief, the last thing you want is the added concern of dealing with the legal and financial complexities that often come with this tragedy. Given the statistical difference in life expectancies between men and women, the potential of widowhood is a reality that requires careful thought and preparation.
While it’s impossible to emotionally brace oneself for the loss of a life partner, dedicating some time to addressing the following questions can provide a degree of financial relief if the possibility of widowhood becomes your reality.
Do You Have a Trust in Place?
If you and your spouse do not have a trust, consider drawing one up in order to control where your assets go now, and in the future. A trust ensures assets are protected and disbursed to the right heirs. You can have both a will and a trust, but while a will takes effect after one’s passing, a trust can be used both during life and after one’s passing. Be sure to ask your advisor about state laws when it comes to the differences between wills and trusts. For instance, in Ohio, a will must go through probate court, while you can make a living trust to avoid probate for virtually any asset you own—real estate, bank accounts, vehicles, and so on.
Without a trust, it can take longer to get closure, and the details about how assets should be passed on can get messy in the process. If you do have a trust, make sure it’s up to date by working with a qualified estate attorney to get all the legalities in place.
What Benefits Are Available to You?
Understanding your benefits is another important aspect in preparing for the possibility of widowhood. Things like Social Security, life insurance, pensions, and annuities should be assessed ahead of time so that you're not struggling to make difficult financial decisions immediately after loss.
If your spouse is still working, there may be other employer-sponsored benefits available as well. Work together with your loved one to make a list of all the benefits either of you will receive in the event of widowhood as well as the information needed to access these resources. As difficult as it may be, talking about these benefits ahead of time can help you both feel prepared if widowhood were to happen.
Do You Have Access to All Financial Account Information?
One of the hardest parts of widowhood is moving forward without the support of your spouse. Maybe they were the one who handled all of the day-to-day financial matters and now you are stepping into this role for the first time in your life. It can be overwhelming to say the least.
The best way to prepare for this possibility is to make sure both spouses have access to important financial account information including checking and savings accounts, retirement plans, and other investments. At a minimum, both spouses should have access to the account numbers and any log-in information. Also keep in mind that in some cases, settling an estate may require a birth certificate and/or marriage certificate (even if you are divorced), so it’s important to keep these in a safe and accessible location.
Additionally, understanding how these accounts are titled (joint or individual), as well as who is listed as the beneficiary, are crucial aspects of estate planning. Having joint ownership on all accounts, or listing each other as beneficiaries, can help the assets transfer smoothly by avoiding probate.
Are You Aware of the “Widow’s Penalty”?
One factor that can impact your financial future is what’s called the “widow’s penalty.” The term “widow’s penalty” refers to the situation where a surviving spouse ends up paying higher taxes on a potentially reduced income following the death of their partner. There are a number of reasons for this scenario that can become a frustrating and expensive lesson for the surviving spouse.
The first reason for this occurrence is when you go from married filing jointly to filing single, you lose 50% of the standard deduction. This means that more of your income will be counted in your tax bill, so you’ll have to pay more than you’re used to, which can be a surprise to some.
Further, if you have not done any Roth conversions prior to this point, then the surviving spouse will have to take required minimum distributions from the combined IRAs/401(k)s. Even if the RMD amount is the same as before, the tax bill will still be higher because of the different filing status.
In addition to that, the different filing status can also affect IRMAA (Income-Related Monthly Adjustment Amount). IRMAA is a surcharge on Medicare Parts B and D. Simply put, if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) is above a certain threshold, you will have to pay extra on your premiums for Parts B and D, and that surcharge goes up as your income goes up. As a married couple, the threshold is $194,000, but if filing single, the threshold is only $97,000. As you can see, going from a married filing status to single filing status, but keeping the same income, will increase your chances of having to pay that Medicare surcharge.
Not only can there be added financial responsibilities and burden on the surviving spouse, there also might be the chance of paying a higher tax rate to boot.
Do You Have a Trusted Advisor?
Having a strong support system can carry you through widowhood and give you the strength to move forward. Part of that support system should be a trusted financial professional.
Whether you’re already working with a financial advisor, or you’re looking to hire one, take your time getting to know them and make sure you like working together.
If there is one spouse who tends to handle all financial matters, make it a point to introduce the other spouse to the financial team. Widowhood is a vulnerable time and it’s vital that both spouses feel comfortable reaching out for help with important financial matters. If one or both spouses don’t trust the advisor, it may be necessary to reevaluate the relationship.
Your well-being is of the utmost importance during this process, so don’t be afraid to interview several financial professionals before choosing the one you trust most.
We Are Here to Support
As challenging as it may be, planning for unforeseen circumstances allows you the ability to rebuild with less stress in the aftermath of a loss. At Anderson Financial Strategies, our goal is to provide a transparent process that gives you confidence in your financial journey, regardless of the life stage you find yourself in. We specialize in guiding you and your spouse in addressing the tough decisions tied to the potentiality of widowhood. As you work to create a stable financial base, our team stands ready to address your concerns and questions. If you would like to explore our services for your family or business, please call us at 855-237-4545 to schedule an executive briefing to discuss your goals.
Shon Anderson is president and chief wealth strategist at Anderson Financial Strategies, LLC with over 15 years of experience. As a fiduciary, Shon’s mission is to provide his clients with quality financial expertise along with rapidly responsive service through an honest relationship. He specializes in providing family office-style services to help his clients organize and focus their financial life. Shon graduated from Wright State University with a bachelor’s degree in financial services and an MBA in finance. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner and holds the Chartered Financial Analyst® (CFA®) certification. His insights have been quoted in leading financial news publications such as CNBC, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, Consumer Reports, Forbes, Bankrate.com, Investment News, and Kiplinger. Shon serves as an adjunct professor teaching personal finance courses at Wright State University, leads CFP® exam review courses for Keir Educational Resources, and is president of the CFA Society Dayton. Shon and his wife, Jessica, reside in Sugarcreek Township, Ohio, and are blessed with triplet daughters, Elizabeth, Bridgette, and Alexandra, along with their son, Jacob, and dog, Jack. Over the years, Shon has been involved in several volunteer organizations including the Wright State chapter of Delta Tau Delta as an alumni advisor and was a Big Brother in the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. To learn more about Shon, connect with him on LinkedIn.