No amount of planning can prepare you for the loss of a husband or life partner. Either through death, abandonment or divorce.
In 1983, after me, my mother’s last child, left the roost for college, her husband of 10 years left the house and the marriage with nothing but a note that said, “By the time you read this. I’ll be gone. The good news is we’ll be able to stop taking Alka Seltzer.”
A shocking and sad end to a marriage that didn’t really seem doomed. In fact, I didn’t even know my step-father was unhappy. Nor did my mother.
I never saw my step-father again. Neither did his four biological kids. He disappeared forever. Although we did hear that he settled and remarried in Florida.
All loss hurts: death, divorce and abandonment. The financial fall-out can be devastating and hard to recover from. The mental fall-out can be much more damaging.
Lucky for my mother, she recovered and moved on. Although the pain has never really gone away. The financial fall-out was not devastating, but it did set her back and she would be better off financially today if she wasn’t abandoned. As for me, my stepfather was helping me pay for college so I left school, regrouped, worked, saved money and eventually returned to school and got not only one degree, but two. My mom and I made a pact to not let this “crazy” man bring us down.
As Anna Byrne, an estate planning attorney from Cambridge, MA stated in her article: 7 Steps for Widows and Widowers to Manage Their First Year Alone… Nothing quite prepares you for the dark and debilitating grief of losing a spouse or life partner. The beginning of every widow or widower’s journey is about picking up the pieces and finding the strength to keep going even when your “other half” has passed.” Or in my mother’s case, when the other half up and leaves. In both cases, you’re left suddenly single.
Going through this experience with my mother taught me many things about life, people, marriage, divorce, and money. But most importantly, it taught me two things 1) Life never goes as planned; and 2) You can’t always count on people. This is just one of my life experiences that has motivated me to start a movement to help women know more and have more and to be independent and confident in their life…no matter what life throws at them.
Statistics prove that women are more likely to be suddenly single due to our longevity, and with the graying of divorce, along with the number of baby boomers continuing to retire over the next 10 years, many women will be left solo to make all of their financial decisions.
I know the grief between death and abandonment and divorce are all different, but many steps to recovering are similar.
In the case of my mom and I, we had immediate issues to face, like paying my next college bill and paying the next mortgage payment without his income. Our phase 1 was about getting by with the lost of step daddy’s income. Phase 2 was about grief (and feeling sorry for ourselves)… we were both sad, but she lost a husband and I lost a dad. Our grief was similar but different. Phase 3 was about becoming the “her” in hero and deciding to never be even the slightest bit dependent on a man. Phase 4 for me was to find trust in any man and to eventually find my own secure relationship (although it took 2 failed marriages to find). Mom’s phase 4 was to focus on other things in her life that would bring her joy and to continue to prepare herself financially and mentally for the future as a single woman with four adult children. Which, now at 85, she continues to rock her single life…although I’m sure she dreams of what a long term happy marriage would have been like.
Ms. Byrne outlines seven steps she recommends people take after the death of a spouse or partner in her article. I’ll paraphrase them and add my commentary. I’m actually witnessing and helping a friend through some of this process. She recently lost her husband very suddenly at only 58. In fact, in last week’s podcast, I talked about how we watched her spread his ashes at the top of Big Mountain in Whitefish Montana two weeks ago. She’s managing to hold her life together but I’m sure sometimes it’s feels like she’s dangling from a thin thread.
So let me summarize the steps…
Step 1: Take Care of Immediate Things
Although hard, there will be immediate things you’ll need to take care of. Although it might feels more overwhelming than anything you’ve done before you don’t need to do it alone. Make sure to ask for help as this first step can be mentally exhausting. And remember, you are stronger than you think and you’ll get through it.
You’ll need to notify family members, loved ones and family advisers and make decisions about organ donation, burial vs. cremation and funeral arrangements.
If you know what your partner or spouses wishes were for end of life, these decisions will be much easier.
You’ll also have to make sure you are okay financially and with your work, etc. if you are still working…taking time off as needed. Make sure to delegate as much as possible and stay organized.
Step 2: Find and Organize Key Documents
Becoming suddenly single means that you will be responsible for your finances. Perhaps you were already the CFO of your partnership/family or perhaps your spouse/partner managed all things financial. You may find yourself particularly stressed if the latter is true.
Make sure you to prioritize locating documents such as will, trust, life insurance policies. Call your estate attorney if you have one. Many attorneys retain their clients’ original estate planning documents in their vaults and have useful information to guide clients.
As you assemble these legal documents, don’t write on any and don’t remove any staples. These innocent actions can inadvertently create issues concerning the validity of the documents.
Step 3: Take Inventory, Get Financially Organized and On Track
Next, you’ll want to take a complete inventory of your assets and liabilities so that you can identify your current and future situation, priorities and plan. If you and your spouse/partner already have such and inventory, you’ll need to review it and create a new plan for yourself for now and in retirement.
The Retirement Solved software I’ve recently launched is a perfect platform to take this inventory, keep track of things like your cash flow and net worth, while also having the software identify any gaps you have in your inventory/plan. The software will also help educate you about your money, retirement and strategies that can help you retire with more. You can learn more and access a free trial at www.RetirementSolved.io.
Here’s a list of all the documents you’ll want to gather in this getting financial organized and on track phase. Examples of these are as follows:
- Tax returns
- Bank statements
- Real estate deeds
- Mortgage documents
- Investment accounts
- Retirement account statements such as from IRAs and 401(k)s
- Pension information
- Social Security information
- Annuity contracts
- Life insurance policies (check with your late partner’s employer to see if there are any group benefits
- Credit card statements
- Other information pertaining to things of value
You may need to contact an accountant for help with tax documents. If your partner/spouse owned a business, there’s a completely separate set of steps you’ll need to take.
Since many people have switched to paperless documents and statements, you may need to figure out how to access his/her online storage vault, and email accounts. Once you’re organized and know what you have and what you’re missing you should connect with a financial advisor/CFP and/or retirement advisor who can help you pull together your new financial plan.
Step 4: Pull the Pieces Together
You’ll need to familiarize yourself with your state’s laws and procedures regarding wills and probate.
A good reason to be familiar with your state’s laws is in the case of there being no will. If this happens, “your partner’s state of residence intestacy laws will determine who can serve as the personal representative to manage the financial and legal affairs of the estate.” Each state also has probate laws that outline what must be done and when and who has the authority to handle the estate.
The probate process exists “so that once the court can confirm the will is valid, it can appoint the personal representative or executor named in the will who will collect, manage and transfer estate property.
There are some assets that can pass outside of probate, if beneficiaries are named:
- Retirement accounts
- Life insurance policies
- Joint accounts
Taxes also need to be addressed during the settlement of an estate. In addition to income taxes, there may be federal and state estate taxes. Some states don’t impose estate taxes, so it’s important to ask your attorney or research this to find out.
Generally, as a surviving spouse, estate taxes are not likely. However, if you were not married or if you were part of a blended family where there were children from a prior marriage, the estate tax is something to address with your advisers.
Estate taxes are calculated based on the values of a person’s assets at the date of death, so knowing these values is critical. Under current law, assets passing through the estate receive what’s called a “step-up” in basis. The step-up rules adjust the tax base of assets to the market value at death, which reduces the amount of income taxable gain on the sale of assets like the family home and stocks.
To ensure you are properly handling this step, consult a tax adviser who specializes in estate-related tax issues.
Step 5: Build a Team of Trusted Advisors
One of the most valuable resources you can have is a trusted team of advisors. With so many decisions and so much at stake, including your mental wellness most importantly, having a team of experts is a no-brainer in my opinion.
Your team should address all of the steps for completing probate and administering your partner’s estate, including a financial advisor, tax advisor and in some cases a business advisor if you and/or your spouse/partner were in business together.
Taking the time to build this team could be instrumental in protecting your money, your own estate, and your sanity down the road.
Step 6: Plan for Your Immediate Future
After the addressing your immediate short-term financial needs, you’ll need to create a plan B for the plan A you may have had as a couple. I strongly suggest that before any sudden loss of either spouse, the other spouse has this plan B and knows what the financial picture looks like as a single person. It will be important to create a new spending plan and to understand what your current and future financial situation looks like, as well as your retirement. A financial advisor and/or retirement advisor will be a key asset to you.
Step 7: Plan Things for Your Loved Ones
Finally, make sure to get your estate plan in order so your loved ones have a road map upon your own death. As you will have experienced in this process, having everything organized and in order helps the dealing and healing immensely.
You will want to have each of these estate planning documents created and keep them updated every five years:
- Health care proxy also known as an advance health care directive
- Financial durable power of attorney
- Revocable trust in which you designate who you want to be in control of your estate when you die and who will receive your estate
- Tangible personal property memorandum that allows you to designate how you want your personal items to pass
This is also the ideal time to check and update all beneficiaries on your retirement, annuity and insurance policies.
Once you have all the documents in place to address disability, incapacity or death, communicate your wishes to your loved ones and let them know if they’ll play a role in your plan. Tell them where your documents are located, your wishes pertaining to health decisions and whom to contact if something happens to you.” One of the benefits of the Her Retirement membership program is that we offer a discounted subscription to a program called Everplans where all this information can be easily stored and accessed.
These are the seven step Ms. Byrne alludes to in her article, but I want to add a Step 8 and I’m sure there’s other steps other experts would add. But Step 8 is to take time to yourself. Self-care is so very important including trying to sleep well, eat well and exercise. Spend time with friends and family. Start thinking about how you want to live the rest of your life…in it’s new form. Take all the time you need to grieve…the process is different for everyone.
And finally, for those who are listening to this podcast that aren’t suddenly single, let these steps be a reminder to get your personal life in order so that at your passing, your executor and heirs have an easier time finalizing your affairs and your estate so that they can focus on getting through the grieving process and celebrating your life. No one looks forward to planning end of life, but it will be so helpful to those you leave behind.
So thanks once again for listening to this week’s episode, Suddenly Single. I hope that if and when you are faced with being Suddenly Single you remember this podcast or print out the blog version of this podcast and save it in your important papers. And I encourage you all to put together your end of life plan and documents, talk to your spouse/partner and make sure you each know where all of this important information is and you understand each other’s wishes.
I want to end this podcast on a lighter note and circle back to my mother. I called my mom the other day (who is very much a planner and very organized). I asked her what she was doing. Her reply, “Oh…just planning the playlist for my celebration of life. It will be in my file cabinet with the rest of my funeral plans. I did say she’s a planner, right?
So thanks for listening. Remember: Pain makes you stronger. Fear makes you braver. Heartbreak makes you wiser.
As always, my team and I are available to help you in any way we can. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime. Until my next week’s episode, here’s to knowing more and having more…now and in retirement. And if you’ve listened to my other podcasts I always leave you with one final thought…Let’s Get Her Done.