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What Happens Financially when a Spouse Dies?

Losing a beloved spouse is one of the most stressful events in life, so it’s one we tend not to talk about. However, planning for life after the passing of a spouse needs to be done, as it is an eventuality. According to a recent article from AARP Magazine, “The Financial Penalty of Losing Your Spouse,” the best time to plan for this is before your spouse dies.

You’ll have the most options while your spouse is still living. Estate plans, wills, trusts, and beneficiary designations can still be updated, as long as your spouse has legal capacity. You can make sure you’ll still have access to savings, retirement, and investment accounts. Create a list of assets, including information needed to access digital accounts.

Make sure that your credit cards will be available. Many surviving spouses only learn after a death whether credit cards are in the spouse’s name or their own name.

Get help from professionals. Review your new status with your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor. This includes which accounts need to be moved and which need to be renamed. Can you afford to maintain your home? An experienced professional who works regularly with widows or widowers can provide help, if you are open to asking.

A warning note: Be careful about new “friends.” Widows are key targets of scammers, and thieves are very good at scamming vulnerable people.

Be strategic about Social Security. If both partners were drawing benefits, the surviving spouse may elect the higher benefit going forward. If you haven’t claimed yet, you have options. You can take either a survivor’s benefit based on your spouse’s work history, or the retirement benefit based on your own work history. You will be able to switch to the higher benefit, if it ends up being higher, later on.

Be careful about your spouse’s 401(k) and IRA. If you’re in your 50s, you are allowed to roll your spouse’s 401(k) or IRA into your own account. However, don’t rush to move the 401(k). You can make a withdrawal from a late spouse’s 401(k) without penalty. However, it will be taxable as ordinary income. If you move the 401(k) to a rollover IRA, you’ll have to pay taxes plus a 10% penalty on any withdrawals taken from the IRA before you reach 59 ½. Your estate planning attorney can help with these accounts.

Use any advantages available to you. The IRS will still let you file jointly in the year of your spouse’s death. Tax rates are better for married filers than for singles. Any taxable withdrawals you’ll need to take from 401(k)s or IRAs may be taxed at a lower rate during this year. You may decide to use the money to create a rollover Roth IRA or to put some funds into a non-tax deferred account.

Don’t rush to do anything you don’t have to do. Selling your home, writing large checks to children, or moving are all things you should not do right now. Decisions made in the fog of grief are often regretted later on. Take your time to mourn, adjust to your admittedly unwanted new life and give yourself time for this major adjustment.

Reference: AARP Magazine (May 13, 2022) “The Financial Penalty of Losing Your Spouse”

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