What Do You Need to Do When a Spouse Dies?

Life events require planning, even the most heartbreaking, like the death of a spouse. Spouses ideally create a blueprint together so when the inevitable occurs, they are prepared, says the article “The important financial steps to take after a spouse dies” from The Globe and Mail. It may sound cold to take a business approach, but by doing so, the surviving spouse will know what to expect and what to do.

Some people use a spreadsheet to clearly see what their financial picture will look like before and after the death of a spouse.

There are pieces of information that are vital to know:

  • What health insurance coverage does the spouse have?
  • Will the coverage remain in place after the death of the spouse?
  • Do any accounts need to be changed to joint ownership before death?
  • What investments do both spouses have, and will they be accessible after death of one spouse?
  • Is there a last will and testament, and where is it located?

Many people are wholly unprepared and have to tackle their entire financial situation immediately after their spouse dies. If they were not involved in family finances and retirement planning, it can lead to costly mistakes and make a difficult time even harder.

If assets are owned jointly with rights of survivorship, the transition and access to finances is easier. If the accounts are only in one name, the surviving spouse will have to wait until the estate goes through probate before they can access funds. If there are bills to pay, the surviving spouse may have to tap retirement funds, which can come with penalties, depending on the accounts and the surviving spouse’s age.

All of this can be avoided by taking the time to create an estate plan which includes planning for asset distribution and may include trusts. There are many trusts designed for use by spouses to take assets out of the probate estate, provide an income source and minimize taxes. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help prepare for this event, from a legal and practical standpoint.

What happens when there’s no will?

No will usually indicates no planning. This leaves spouses and family members in the worst possible situation. The laws of your state will be used to determine how assets are distributed. How much a surviving spouse and descendants will inherit will be based solely on the law. The results may not be optimal for anyone. It’s best to meet with an estate planning attorney and create a will.

Reviewing beneficiary designations for life insurance policies and retirement accounts should be done every few years. If the beneficiary is no longer part of the account owner’s life, the designation needs to be updated. If the beneficiary had died, most accounts would go into the probate estate, where they otherwise would pass directly to the beneficiary.

Reference: The Globe and Mail (July 13, 2022) “The important financial steps to take after a spouse dies”

What are the Stages of Probate?

Probate is a court-supervised process occurring after your death. It takes place in the state where you were a resident at the time of your death and addresses your estate—all of your financial assets, real estate, personal belongings, debts and unpaid taxes. If you have an estate plan, your last will names an executor, the person who takes charge of your estate and settles your affairs, explains the article “Understanding Probate” from Pike County Courier. How exactly does the probate process work?

If your estate is subject to probate, your estate planning attorney files an application for the probate of your last will with the local court. The application, known as a petition, is brought to the probate court, along with the last will. That is also usually when the petitioner files an application for the appointment of the executor of your estate.

First, the court must rule on the validity of the last will. Does it meet all of the state’s requirements? Was it witnessed properly? If the last will meets the state’s requirements, then the court deems it valid and addresses the application for the executor. That person must also meet the legal requirements of your state. If the court agrees that the person is fit to serve, it approves the application.

The executor plays a very important role in settling your estate. The executor is usually a spouse or a close family member. However, there are situations when naming an attorney or a bank is a better option. The person needs to be completely trustworthy. Your fiduciary will have a legal responsibility to be honest, impartial and put your estate’s well-being above the fiduciary’s own. If they do not have a good grasp of financial matters, the fiduciary must have the common sense to ask for expert help when needed.

Here are some of the tasks the fiduciary must address:

  • Finding and gathering assets and liabilities
  • Inventorying and appraising assets
  • Filing the estate tax return and your last tax return
  • Paying debts, managing creditors and paying taxes
  • Distributing assets
  • Providing a detailed report of the estate settlement to the court and any other parties

What is the probate court’s role in this part of the process? It depends upon the state. The probate court is more involved in some states than in others. If the state allows for a less formal process, it’s simpler and faster. If the estate is complicated with multiple properties, significant assets and multiple heirs, probate can take years.

If there is no executor named in your last will, the court will appoint an administrator. If you do not have a last will, the court will also appoint an administrator to settle your estate following the laws of the state. This is the worst possible scenario, since your assets may be distributed in ways you never wished.

Does all of your estate go through the probate process? With proper estate planning, many assets can be taken out of your probate estate, allowing them to be distributed faster and easier. How assets are titled determines whether they go through probate. Any assets with named beneficiaries pass directly to those beneficiaries and are outside of the estate. That includes life insurance policies and retirement plans with named beneficiaries. It also includes assets titled “jointly with rights of survivorship,” which is how most people own their homes.

Your estate planning attorney will discuss how the probate process works in your state and how to prepare a last will and any needed trusts to distribute your assets as efficiently as possible.

Reference: Pike County Courier (March 4, 2021) “Understanding Probate”