You are never prepared for the loss of your spouse. That is true emotionally, and sometimes financially. Even if you do all the work of setting legal instruments in place, often something is overlooked or neglected or some circumstance has changed that requires an update or adjustment.
To prepare, compile papers (especially DD Form 214 and Disability Claims) and determine your financial standing. Calculate the income of each spouse if the other dies. The reality might surprise you. Curtailing your lifestyle, downsizing, saving more, or buying insurance products are options that can avert financial chaos. Give these options some serious thought.
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Keep in mind these additional considerations:
- Credit cards. Each spouse should have a credit card in their name — alone — as well as some jointly held cards. Be careful that automatic recurring charges, a monthly newspaper subscription, for example, are not billed to a card solely owned by one spouse. If that spouse dies, it takes more effort to have that card cancelled.
- Pensions. When you are retired, determining your income seems pretty straightforward. Pensions don’t change much. But what if that pension does not transfer to the surviving spouse? If you have the Survivor Benefit Plan, what percentage of the pension continues? Has it been assigned to the spouse or a special-needs child or to a spouse from a previous marriage? Will the spouse receive the veteran’s Dependency and Indemnity Compensation?
- Social Security. Decisions made about when to start taking Social Security are really difficult. Do what you must, but if there is flexibility, plan a strategy that will support you best and longest. Most people I talk to feel they started withdrawal too soon. Consider delaying Social Security withdrawals from the higher-incomed spouse. Statistically, women might face 20 years or more of widowhood. Each year that you postpone drawing Social Security creates a larger long-term benefit. Do the math. Ask for advice.
- Investments. If you have IRAs, you must start withdrawing at a certain age (currently 72). If you have land investments or precious metals or own a small business, converting them to cash requires market timing. These conversions should be discussed with a sales professional specializing in that niche.
- Gifts and inheritances. If your wealthy Uncle Harry sends you and your spouse each a check for $15,000 yearly, soon that gift is thought of as spendable income. But if one spouse dies, Uncle Harry can only send one check for $15,000 without causing himself tax consequences. Besides, other family members won’t think it’s fair if you get $30,000 and they each only get $15,000. Be grateful, but consider this check a gift, not a reliable source of income. If you own part of an income producing property that is supporting you in retirement, make sure the property is titled correctly and the deed transfer upon death achieves the result you need for that income. Take the example of owning a rental house in partnership with your father, and you and your spouse use half of that rental income for living expenses. You expect to inherit this property upon your father’s death. But if you predecease your father and the property is not correctly titled, your spouse could be denied the half share of future income.
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- Taxes on investments. Losses on the sale of an investment owned by your spouse are not carried over after the year of the spouse’s death. Offset that capital loss by selling an asset that produced a comparable gain. Don’t procrastinate. Do this during the year of death to receive the full benefit of the write-off. When a spouse dies and there are no dependents, the survivor pays taxes at the rate of a single person, not married or head of household. Examine the tax table; the single rate is much higher. It can happen that a survivor will have less income and still pay more income taxes. And if the survivor has a modified adjusted gross income exceeding $88,000 a year, Medicare premiums will also be increased.
- Secrets. That diamond ring from a former beau, stamp collection, or Bitcoin is not valuable if your spouse doesn’t know the ID number or the bank deposit box where it is located. Be sure you discuss all your assets and debts with your spouse.