[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post submitted by a regular reader, a physician who wishes to remain anonymous. Although it doesn’t apply to me, and hopefully won’t for a long time, I did pick up a few pearls I didn’t know before reading it. This is one of the best written and researched guest posts I’ve ever received. However, it’s a little long, so I split it into two posts, one today and one tomorrow. As with all guest posts by readers, I expect you to be very nice in the comments section. Guest posters rarely have as thick of skin as I have, and I like to encourage these types of submissions. I have no financial relationship with the author.]
My life in a nutshell goes something like this: went to med school, met the love of my life, got married, had kids, built a wonderful life together as a two-physician couple. We were together almost 30 happy years. Looking back on it, this life seems almost like a fairy tale. Except for the ending, when she died unexpectedly in her early 50’s. That was two years ago.
I am certainly not an expert on the financial aspects of losing one’s spouse, but I feel moved to write this guest post because the loss of a spouse is among the most earth-shattering experiences a human can face, and, in the weeks and months following such a loss, at a time when the world seems most dreary, the surviving spouse is thrust into the position of having to make financial decisions with enormous ramifications for one’s future security and livelihood. I hope that sharing my experiences navigating these bleak waters can help others who may someday experience a similar devastating loss.
The take-home messages of this post are: 1) be prepared and 2) don’t panic. Being prepared means that you have taken care of estate planning in advance, your financial records are up to date, you can locate all vital documents, and you have an action plan that you can execute even when you are numb with grief, exhausted, and surrounded by grieving children, family and friends. Not panicking means that there are few things that must be dealt with immediately. Force yourself to take plenty of time before making any major decisions. A good rule of thumb is to wait about a year before deciding to sell the house, take a new job, move to a new city, or make major purchases with life insurance payouts. Also, plan to take off at least 2 weeks from work, preferably longer, as dealing with these issues will take even longer than that. Also, make sure you have plenty of minutes on your cell phone plan. You will burn through them.
The remainder of this post is basically a list of topics that need to be addressed after the death of a spouse, with focused comments based on my personal experience. Several topics are of special relevance to physicians. Of course this can’t be a complete or exhaustive treatment of the subject, but it is a place to start.
After the birth of our first child we did a typical estate planning package with a local attorney, including wills, revocable living trusts, powers of attorney, health care powers of attorney, and advanced directives. It cost about $2000 for the two of us. I consider this an essential investment, although I acknowledge that there are legitimate disagreements about the best ways to accomplish these tasks. Suffice it to say that the estate planning was not only for the benefit of the surviving spouse, but also for the benefit of our young children should the second spouse also die. I sleep much better now knowing that when I die, the executor of my estate will know exactly how best to provide for my children, according to my wishes.
The initial estate planning documents are drafted from the point of view of passing the estate to the surviving spouse. Everything needs to be reconsidered once there is only one person in the estate. It is especially important to consider what is in the best interest of the surviving children. For example, would you really want your 19 year old child to inherit outright their share of a 7-figure estate? Would they make the best decisions with such a windfall? What could possibly go wrong? Thoughtful estate planning can give them staged access to their inheritance, immediately providing for their health care, education and basic needs, without disincentivizing them to apply themselves in their education and career.
You will need to obtain many certified copies of the official death certificate to provide to every party you can imagine: Social Security Administration (SSA), banks, insurance companies, employers, investment houses, etc. They may be obtained from the county office of vital records or possibly from the funeral home. I requested 30 copies and have given away all but 1 copy. Your mileage may vary.
One of your first phone calls should be to the SSA (www.ssa.gov/survivorplan/) (800-772-1213) to report the death of your spouse. This cannot be done online. You will need to fill out some paperwork and provide a death certificate and marriage certificate. You are entitled to a modest one-time lump sum death benefit of $255, intended to help with the costs associated with death. Also, your surviving children may be entitled to receive a more substantial monthly payment, based on the spouse’s earnings record, if they are under the age of 18 or possibly older if they are still full time high school students. It is important to request an earnings record for your spouse as well as estimated monthly benefits to which you may be entitled. Reduced survivor benefits can begin as early as your age 60 (or 50 if you are disabled). As a widow/widower you are entitled to 100% of your spousal benefits, in contrast to the 50% limit if both spouses are living.
Note that strategies for maximizing SS retirement benefits are different for survivor benefits as compared with other categories of SS benefits. If you file and suspend your own retirement benefits at your FRA, the survivor’s benefit is also calculated at a reduced rate. Thus, you shouldn’t file and suspend but instead only claim the survivor benefits, and then switch to your own retirement benefit at age 70 if your benefit is higher. If the survivor SS benefits are likely to be higher than your own, then it may make sense to wait until they maximize at your FRA before claiming them. You get no additional increase in benefit by waiting until age 70. If your benefits are likely to be higher than the survivor benefits, then it probably makes sense to start the survivor benefits as early as possible, typically age 60, and let your own retirement benefit maximize at age 70. As with any calculations involving the SSA, it is worth a phone call to make certain that you are making the best decisions.
Just to make things even more complicated, the survivor rules are different again for divorcees, and the benefits also vary with whether or not the divorced decedent had already claimed his/her own retirement benefits and the age at which their claim was filed. Again, one must review with the SSA to be absolutely sure of one’s benefits. Note that you lose access to your survivor SS benefits related to your previous spouse(s) if you remarry before the age of 60, but not if you remarry beyond that age. If you lost your survivor benefits due to remarriage but later become unmarried again, you may reclaim your survivor SS benefits. If you have multiple deceased spouses and are unmarried and over the age of 60, you may select which one gives you the best survivor benefits.
Also one of the first phone calls, the employer and/or HR need to be notified. Be prepared for some serious shock and grief when discussing the loss of your spouse with his/her boss and coworkers. Don’t forget to discuss with HR, as there may be unanticipated death benefits in the form of life insurance, unpaid vacation and sick leave, payments from a disability insurance policy in effect, accidental death/dismemberment coverage, cancer insurance, etc. Finally, it is likely that your spouse had one or more retirement plans through their employer, and you will need to file appropriate paperwork to claim these accounts. Don’t forget to explore the possibility of a pension. You may be entitled to a death benefit as the surviving spouse and/or a pension buyout.
Was your spouse ever in the military? Did they work for county, state or federal government? There may be forgotten retirement accounts and/or pensions lurking around. More phone calls to make and paperwork to fill out, but the benefits are possibly significant.
Hopefully you have the right amount if you need it. WCI has posted many excellent articles that helped to shape our approach to buying term life insurance. My wife had personal policies as well as group life insurance through her employer. Each insurance carrier will need a certified death certificate. Large insurers typically payout the life insurance contract into a checking account at their own financial institution and encourage you to keep the money there indefinitely, for “your convenience”. This is a great deal for them but a terrible deal for you, as these accounts earn almost no interest. I recommend requesting checks as quickly as possible and writing a single check for the entire amount to deposit into an interest-bearing account. My local credit union offers a 1% money market account. Let’s see, a $1,000,000 payout earning essentially no interest in the insurance company account vs. 1% in a bank account. Why would you leave $10,000 per year on the table?
Click here to read Part 2, or, leave a comment or question below. Has your spouse died? What were the financial issues you found most stressful? How about the spouse of a family member or client? What about a non-spouse partner? Comment below!