What Do I Need to Do Right after Spouse Dies?

If you are very close to the person who has passed away, you’ll likely have a lot to do immediately after their death.

Katie Couric Media’s recent article entitled “What to Do Immediately After the Death of a Loved One” says that it’s normal to feel like your brain short circuits each time you try to make a decision and you find it hard to concentrate. Making it through the days after a loss will be painful. However, here are some things to do immediately and shortly after someone dies to make the process of grief a bit easier.

Plan ahead. This can make a big difference. It will let you have the time and space to grieve after death. This involves both talking about priorities and, ideally, talking to an elder law or estate planning attorney.

Call 911 if they’re at home. To get a death certificate, first, you have to get an official declaration of death. If your loved one died at home without a medical professional present, a medical professional must declare them deceased. Call 911 soon after they have died and have them transported to a hospital, where they can be declared deceased and moved to a funeral home.

Get organized. Make a list of the things people are doing for you and your family, and keep a folder to keep all the documents you’ll be given.

Get the death certificate — and make copies. Without a declaration of death, you can’t get a death certificate. You also won’t be able to handle the deceased’s legal affairs. Obtain a dozen copies of the death certificate from the funeral home because you’ll need these copies for things, such as insurance claims and closing accounts.

Read everything carefully. In your grief, haste and anxiety, it is easy to overlook things. Therefore, when it comes to things like the death certificate — which the funeral home staff often prepares based on the information you provide — the exact spelling of names matters. Draft the obituary and send it to a family member or close friend to review before submitting it to the funeral home.

Think through, or put off, financial decisions. Wait on making financial decisions. In times of distress, especially grief, your judgment may be a bit clouded. So, unless a big purchase is absolutely necessary for the funeral or the burial, wait on other financial decisions.

Take a video of the home. It’s important to document what assets are in the home, such as any valuables, both of financial and sentimental value. A good way to do this is to record a video of the house. Record each room, and every detail. Be sure to open up cabinets and drawers. If there is ever an issue as to the person’s assets later, or even the insurance company, you have your video.

Overcoming sadness accompanied by grief is a terrific feat. Use these tips to help you.

Reference: Katie Couric Media (April 28, 2022) “What to Do Immediately After the Death of a Loved One”

Does an Elder Orphan Need an Estate Plan?

Estate planning for the future is even more important for elder orphans than for those with a spouse or family members, according to this recent article “Savvy Senior: How to get help as an elder orphan” from The Virginia Gazette. There is no one single solution, but there are steps to take to protect your estate, health and provide for long-term care.

Start with the essential estate planning documents. These documents will protect you and ensure that your wishes are followed, if you become seriously ill or when you die. These documents include:

A durable Power of Attorney to designate someone to handle financial matters in the event of incapacity.

An Advanced Health Care Directive, including a Living Will, to tell your health care provider what kind of care you want if you become incapacitated.

A Health Care Power of Attorney, naming a person of your choice to make medical decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so.

A Will to direct how you want your property and assets to be distributed upon your death and to name an Executor who will be in charge of your estate.

Your best option to prepare these documents is an experienced estate planning attorney. Trying to do it yourself is risky. Each state has its own laws for these documents to be valid. If the documents are not accepted, the court could declare your will invalid and your directions will not be followed.

People with families typically name a responsible adult child as their power of attorney for finances, as executor or for health care decisions. If you do not have adult children, you may ask a trusted friend or colleague. Name a person who is younger than you, organized and responsible and who will likely be available and willing to service.

If the person you name as executor lives in another state, you will need to check with your estate planning attorney to see if there are any special requirements.

If you do not have a friend or even a distant relative you feel comfortable assigning this role to, your estate planning attorney may be able to suggest alternatives, such as an aging life care manager. These professionals are trained in geriatric care and often have backgrounds in social work or nursing.

If you are reluctant to complete the legal documents mentioned above or start having them prepared and then fail to complete them, you may face some unpleasant consequences. A judge may appoint a guardian to make decisions on your behalf. This guardian is likely to be a complete stranger to you. They will be legally empowered to make all decisions for you regarding your health care, end-of-life care and even your burial and funeral services.

Unless you are comfortable with a court-appointed person making health care and other decisions for you, call an estate planning attorney and start making plans for the future.

Reference: The Virginia Gazette (April 1, 2022) “Savvy Senior: How to get help as an elder orphan”

Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Estate planning is crucial to ensure that wealth accumulated over a lifetime is distributed according to your wishes and will take care of your family when you are no longer able to do so. Many well-intentioned people make common mistakes, which could be avoided with the guidance of an estate planning attorney, says the article “Avoiding Big Estate Planning Mistakes” from Physician’s Weekly.

Do you have a will? Many families must endure the red tape and expenses of “intestate” probate because a parent never got around to having a will prepared. The process is relatively straightforward: identify an estate planning attorney and make an appointment. Once the will is completed, make sure several trusted people, likely family members, know where it is and can access it.

Are you properly insured? If the last time you looked at your life insurance coverage was more than ten years ago, it’s probably not kept pace with your life. Although every person’s situation is different, high- income earners, like physicians or other professionals, need to understand that life insurance “replaces” income. This means enough to pay for college, pay off a mortgage and provide for your surviving spouse and children’s lifestyles.

When was the last time you spoke with your estate planning attorney, CPA, or financial advisor? Tax laws are constantly changing, and if your estate plan is not keeping up with those changes, you may be missing out on planning opportunities. Your family also may end up with a big tax bill, if your estate plan hasn’t been revised in the last three or four years. Your team of professionals is only as good as you let them be, so stay in touch with them.

When was the last time you reviewed your estate plan with your attorney? If you thought an estate plan was a set-it-and-forget-it plan, think again. Tax laws aren’t the only thing that changes. If you’ve divorced and remarried, you definitely need a new estate plan—and possibly a post-nuptial agreement. Have your children grown up, married and perhaps had children of their own? Do you have a new and troublesome son-in-law and want to protect your daughter’s inheritance? All of the changes in your life need to be reflected in your estate plan.

Having “the talk” with your family. No one wants to think about their own mortality or their parent’s mortality. However, if you don’t discuss your estate plan and your wishes with your family, they will not know what you want to happen. It doesn’t need to be a summit meeting, but a series of conversations to allow your loved ones to become comfortable with the discussion and make it more likely your wishes will be fulfilled. This includes your estate plan and your wishes for burial or cremation and what kind of memorial service you want.

Reference: Physician’s Weekly (Oct. 8, 2021) “Avoiding Big Estate Planning Mistakes”

Why Is Estate Planning So Important?

Big Easy Magazine’s recent article “Estate Planning Is Essential and Here’s Why” says that writing a last will isn’t limited to what happens to your house, car, company, or other assets after you die. It also states who will take care of your minor children, if they are orphaned.

Your instructions for burial and other smaller things can be included.

If you fail to provide specific instructions, the state intestacy laws will apply upon your death. Here is a glimpse of the consequences of not writing your last will:

  • Your burial preferences may not be honored.
  • Your properties may be managed by an individual you don’t necessarily trust. Without a named executor to your last will, some other family member may be asked to file taxes, make transfers and manage your estate.
  • Family members may not get an inheritance. Under intestacy laws, same-sex relationships and common-law marriages may not be recognized. So, your partner may not get a portion of your estate.
  • Your favorite charity may be left out. If you are committed to leaving a legacy, your charity, religious organization, or other organization of choice should be mentioned in the last will.
  • The government will name the guardians for your minor children.

With a last will, you can designate a guardian for your children and avoid additional taxes. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about developing a comprehensive estate plan.

Aside from this, estate planning can also save your loved ones considerable angst and money.

A detailed last will with your instructions will avoid complications and provide comfort, while your loved ones recover emotionally from their loss.

Reference: Big Easy Magazine (May 17, 2021) “Estate Planning Is Essential and Here’s Why”

Should I Add that to My Will?

In general, a last will and testament is an easy and straightforward way to state who gets what when you die and designate a guardian for your minor children, if you (and your spouse) die unexpectedly.

MSN’s recent article entitled “Things you should never put in your will” explains that you can be specific about who receives what. However, attaching strings or conditions may not work because there’s no one to legally enforce the terms. If you have specific details about how a person should use their inheritance, whether they are a spendthrift or someone with special needs, a trust may be a better option because you’ll have more control, even from beyond the grave.

Keeping some assets out of your will can actually benefit your future heirs because they’ll get their inheritance faster. When you pass on, your will must be “proven” and validated in a probate court prior to distribution of your property. This process takes some time and effort, if there are issues—including something in your will that doesn’t need to be there. For example, property in a trust and payable-on-death accounts are two types of assets that can be distributed to your beneficiaries without a will.

Don’t put anything in a will that you don’t own outright. If you jointly own assets with someone, they will likely become the new owner. For example, this applies to a property acquired by married couples in community property states.

Property in a revocable living trust. This is a separate entity that you can use to distribute your assets which avoids probate. When you title property into the trust, it is subject to the trust’s rules.  Because a trust operates independently, you must avoid inconsistencies and not include anything in your will that the trust addresses.

Assets with named beneficiaries. Some financial accounts are payable-on-death or transferable-on-death. They are distributed or paid out directly to the named beneficiaries. That makes putting them in a will unnecessary (and potentially troublesome, if you’re inconsistent). However, you can add information about these assets in your letter of instruction (see below). As far as bank accounts, brokerage or investment accounts, retirement accounts and pension plans and life insurance policies, assign a beneficiary rather than putting these assets in your will.

Jointly owned property. Property you jointly own with someone else will almost always directly pass to the co-owner when you die, so do not put it in your will. A common arrangement is joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Other things you may not want to put in a will. Businesses can be given away in a will, but it’s not the best plan. Wills must be probated in court and that can create a rough transition after you die. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney on a succession plan for your business and discuss any estate tax issues you may have as a business owner.

Adding your funeral instructions in your will isn’t optimal. This is because the family may not be able to read the will before making arrangements. Instead, leave a letter of instruction with any personal wishes and desires.

Reference: MSN (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”