Does Having a Will Avoid Probate?

a will means probate
Probate will not be avoided just because you have a Will.

Many people I talk to are shocked to find out that having a Will doesn’t mean you’ll avoid probate. In fact, unless you die with no debt and no assets, a Will makes it very likely your estate will be subject to probate.

So, why have a Will?

If you die without a valid Will, the state decides who gets your stuff. In Florida, that’s covered in Chapter 732 of the Florida statutes. Basically, it says that if you’re not married and have no children, everything goes to your parents; if they’re dead, it goes to your siblings. If you’re married, it goes to your wife and possibly your children (depending on the circumstances).

The statutes don’t address who will be the guardian of your minor children. That will be decided by lawyers and a judge ($$$).

If you create a Will, you can choose who gets your stuff – subject to Florida’s laws mandating how much you have to leave your spouse and restricting who can legally inherit your homestead. You’ll also be able to name who you’d like to serve as your Personal Representative if there is a probate, and who you’d trust to serve as guardians of your minor children.

When would a probate be necessary?

Generally, a probate would be necessary if you die with certain types of assets held in your individual name – such as bank accounts, investment accounts, savings bonds, and real property. No one will be able to access or manage those accounts/assets until a judge declares who is entitled to them.

Unfortunately, in Florida, this usually requires a fairly long, drawn out process involving a lawyer ($$$).

Occasionally a simplified process called Disposition Without Administration can be done without a lawyer, but it still costs over $200 just to file the form with the probate court. Use of this simplified process is very limited – basically it’s used when a person dies with a couple thousand dollars in a bank account, there’s no debt, and the spouse or child wants to be reimbursed for the funeral and medical expenses they paid out of their own pocket.

Is there any way to avoid probate?

Probate isn’t always a bad thing. It provides for the orderly payment of your debts and distribution of your remaining assets. It also legally protects your beneficiaries and Personal Representative from the claims of your creditors. This can be very valuable in second marriage situations, or in any family situation where there could be problems.

But, yes, there are ways to avoid probate and some of them are very simple and inexpensive. The simplest way to avoid probate is to name joint owners or beneficiaries on bank and investment accounts. Joint ownership on real estate will also avoid probate. In Florida, you can also name a beneficiary on your real estate deed (I don’t recommend this except in very limited situations). Creating a revocable living trust and retitling your assets in the name of the trust will also avoid probate.

Is there a downside to naming beneficiaries or joint owners?

Yes, sometimes using these methods without legal advice can create unforeseen problems. If you name beneficiaries or joint owners on all your liquid assets, and then a probate is needed for other assets, there’s no money to pay for the probate or taxes and your house, business, guns, or valuable heirlooms may have to be sold to provide those funds. The assets you left to the joint owner or beneficiary became 100% theirs the minute you died, and they have no legal obligation to share them with anyone or use them for your probate expenses or taxes.

Joint ownership with anyone other than your spouse can also create problems with creditors, divorces, and Medicaid planning.

Additionally, under Florida law, you have to leave your spouse a minimum of 30% of every asset you have any ownership in – even those with beneficiaries and joint owners. If you don’t, your spouse can take it away from the named beneficiaries. And, if you decide to leave your homestead to someone Florida says you can’t leave it to, the state will penalize you and your proposed beneficiary and the judge will distribute the homestead according to the law, not your wishes.

Can I type or handwrite my own Will?

Florida has many laws pertaining to what makes a Will valid. If these laws aren’t followed to the letter, the Will isn’t valid and you’ll be treated as if you died without a Will. So while you could certainly type up something simple, or use a form you find on the Internet, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve personally researched and complied with all the Florida laws.

Florida doesn’t recognize handwritten Wills at all.

Additionally, never write on your original Will. Most of the time, the changes you tried to make won’t be valid, and you could end up making your entire Will invalid.

Other articles you might find interesting:

A Basic Form Doesn’t Work for Estate Planning

Yes, You Should Have a Will

Billionaire Conrad Prebys’s Son Gets $15M after Being Disinherited

Conrad Prebys
San Diego real estate developer and philanthropist Conrad Prebys.

Debra Turner, the longtime live-in partner of San Diego developer and philanthropist Conrad Prebys, has tried to sue the directors of the Conrad Prebys Foundation for their decision to give $15 million to Prebys’ son, Eric, who had been left nothing by Prebys in his estate planning documents.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported in the article “Court fight continues over control of $1 billion Prebys estate,” that in January, a San Diego Superior Court judge dismissed Turner’s suit, holding that she had no legal standing to bring it. She then filed an amended complaint. However, recently the judge dismissed her lawsuit.

The legal fight has kept the estate money from going to the charities favored by Conrad Prebys. During his lifetime, he donated more than $350 million to various organizations – most of them in the San Diego area.

Turner says the issue arises from the foundation board’s decision to disregard Prebys’ wishes and give money to his only child, a physicist at UC Davis, who had been written out of the legal documents in 2014.

“When Conrad made a decision, it was done, and he was adamant about revoking Eric’s gift,” Turner told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2017.

Prebys died in 2016, and his trust left gifts to twelve individuals and institutions. The bulk of his assets were left to to his foundation to “support performing arts, medical research and treatment, visual arts, and other charitable purposes” consistent with the causes he cared about when he was alive. However, a few months after his death, the foundation directors – five unpaid volunteers handpicked by Prebys – met to consider the next steps. The directors included Turner and Laurie Anne Victoria, a longtime executive with Prebys’ real-estate company. Victoria is also the trustee of the Prebys estate.

According to Turner’s lawsuit, a foundation attorney had warned the directors that Eric might contest the will, and if he won, he could “get it all.” Several weeks later, Eric’s attorney indeed sent a letter to the board, raising questions about Conrad’s mental competency at the time that the trust was amended. Eric also believed that Turner had exerted undue influence on his father’s decisions. Turner denied the allegations. But in December 2016, the other directors authorized a settlement. Eric got $9 million, plus $6 million to cover the estate taxes.

Turner then sued the board members on behalf of the foundation, alleging they had breached their duties to protect the estate’s assets.

Victoria defended the settlement as “the only reasonable decision” to avoid the uncertainty, expense and publicity of litigation with Eric and to begin fulfilling Conrad’s charitable wishes. She said the money represented less than 1% of the overall estate.

Turner is no longer on the board, and in dismissing her suit, Superior Court Judge Kenneth Medel said that, under corporate law, Turner can’t sue on behalf of the foundation because she’s no longer a director and, thus, lacks standing. Although she was a director when she filed the suit, the law requires her to maintain board membership throughout the litigation, according to the decision.

Reference: The San Diego Union-Tribune (March 29, 2019) “Court fight continues over control of $1 billion Prebys estate”

Other articles you may find interesting:

Angelina Jolie Leaving Her Estate to One Child?

Prince’s Estate Battle Drags On

How Can a Collector Leave a Legacy?

An art collector's heirs may not share the love.
An art collector’s heirs may not share the passion.

A few years after Joan Rivers’ death in 2014, her family put hundreds of Joan’s personal items up for auction at Christie’s in New York.

As The Financial Times reported in “Why an art collector’s estate needs tight planning,” a silver Tiffany bowl, engraved with her dog’s name, Spike, made headlines when it sold for thirty times its estimated price. This shows how an auction house can generate a buzz around the estate of a late collector, creating demand for items that, had they been sold separately, might have failed to attract as much attention.

A common problem for some collectors of art and other valuable collectibles is that their heirs may feel much less passionately about the works than the person who collected them.

If you’re a collector, you can gift, donate, or sell during your lifetime. You can also wait until you pass away and then gift, donate, or sell posthumously. If you want to make certain your wishes are carried out or to eliminate family conflicts after your death, you can take the decision out of the hands of your family by placing your valuable collection into a trust.

Your trust will have your wishes documented in the agreement and you can choose the trustees – whether you choose trusted family members or independent advisers. You, as a collector, might like to seal your legacy by making a permanent loan or gift of art to a museum. However, your children or other family members can renege on these agreements if they’re not adequately protected by trusts or other legal safeguards after your death.

Even with a trust or other legal structure put in place to preserve a legacy, the key to avoiding a fight over a valuable collection after your death is to have frank discussions about estate planning with your family well before the reading of the Will or trust. This can ensure that your wishes are respected.

Reference: Financial Times (June 20, 2019) “Why an art collector’s estate needs tight planning”

Other articles you may find interesting:

How To Disinherit A Child

The Importance of Funding Your Trust

Filing Estate Taxes for a Deceased Family Member

Filing personal and estate tax returns is one of the executors jobs.
Filing personal and estate tax returns is one of the executor’s most important jobs.

If you’re the executor (or personal representative) of a loved one’s estate, and they were well-off, you’ll be dealing with several tax issues. The article “How to file a loved one’s taxes after they’ve passed away” from Market Watch gives a general overview of the decedent’s potential tax liabilities.

Winding down the financial aspects of the estate is one of the tasks done by the executor. The executor is identified in the decedent’s Will or appointed by a judge. If the decedent had a revocable living trust or an irrevocable trust, the trust document names a trustee who works in conjunction with the executor.

The executor is responsible for filing the federal income tax returns for the decedent’s personal income (Form 1040) as well as for the income generated by the estate or trust (Form 1041). The estate’s first federal income tax year starts immediately after the date of death. The tax year-end date can be December 31 or the end of any other month that results in a first tax year of 12 months or less. The IRS form 1041 is used for estates and trusts and the estate income tax return is due on the 15th day of the fourth month after the tax year-end.

For example, if a person dies in 2019 and the executor chooses December 31 as the tax year-end, the estate tax return would be due April 15, 2020. An extension is available, but it’s only for five and a half months. In this example, the due date could be extended to September 30.

There’s no need to file a Form 1041 if all of the decedent’s income-producing assets are directly distributed to the spouse or other heirs and, thus, bypass probate. This is the case when property is owned as joint tenants with right of survivorship, as well as with IRAs and retirement plan accounts and life insurance proceeds with designated beneficiaries.

Unless the estate is valued at more than $11.4 million in 2019, no federal estate tax (also known as the “death tax”) will be due.

But the executor needs to find out if the decedent made any large gifts before death. That means gifts larger than $15,000 in 2018-2019 to a single person, $14,000 for gifts in 2013-2017; $13,000 in 2009-2012, $12,000 for 2006-2008; $11,000 for 2002-2005 and $10,000 for 2001 and earlier. If these gifts were made, the excess over the applicable threshold for the year of the gift must be added back to the estate to see if the federal estate tax exemption has been surpassed. Check with the estate attorney or tax professional to ensure that this is handled correctly.

The unlimited marital deduction permits any amount of assets to be passed to a spouse – as long as the decedent was married to a U.S. citizen. However, the surviving spouse will need expert estate planning to pass the family’s wealth to the next generation, without a large tax liability.

While the taxes and tax planning are more complex when significant assets and estate taxes are involved, estate planning is perhaps even more important for those with modest assets as there is a greater need to protect the family and less room for error. An estate planning attorney can strategically plan to protect family assets even when the assets are not so grand.

Reference: Market Watch (June 17, 2019) “How to file a loved one’s taxes after they’ve passed away”

Other articles you may find interesting:

Widowed? What Happens Next?

Why Unmarried Couples Need Estate Planning

 

What Do I Do With Dad’s Timeshare When He Dies?

A timeshare at a beach resort
A timeshare isn’t always a gift your heirs will appreciate.

When a timeshare owner dies, the property will usually be part of the deceased owner’s estate, according to nj.com’s recent article, “My dad had a timeshare and died without a will. I don’t want it. What do I do?” The contractual obligations of the owner become the responsibility of the next-of-kin or the beneficiaries of the estate.

When the timeshare company hears of the owner’s death, they may keep sending letters to him for his expenses. Is there any way that the owner’s children could be held responsible for the expenses?

Legally speaking, a timeshare is an agreement or arrangement in which parties share the ownership of or right to use property. Each owner is entitled to use the property for a specific period of time. Some examples of timeshare ownership are a vacation club at a tropical resort or a villa at a ski destination.

There are three basic types of timeshare programs: fee simple, leasehold, and right-to-use (‘RTU’). In addition, there are some variations of RTUs, like points systems and fractional/private residence clubs.

The executor or administrator of the estate will need to contact the timeshare company and/or locate a copy of the owner’s contract to find out what the financial and legal obligations are under the contract. In addition, the executor may decide to contact an estate planning attorney, especially if the property is out-of-state. This is important as the laws concerning timeshare agreements and inheritances vary from state to state.

The next-of-kin and estate beneficiaries do have the option of declining an inheritance, including a timeshare. If they want to do this, they’ll typically be required to sign and file an inheritance disclaimer document. If the property is disclaimed, it would pass to the next individuals or entities with a right to inherit.

If the estate fails to make the payments on the timeshare while the owner’s estate is being probated, fees and penalties may accrue. At that point, the timeshare company and the property manager may file a lawsuit against the estate to get their money due them pursuant to the agreement.

However, if the property is disclaimed by all of the heirs, the property manager may likely foreclose on the timeshare, so any accrued debt would be paid from the estate’s assets. That foreclosure shouldn’t impact the credit of any heir who disclaimed the property.

Reference: nj.com (June 3, 2019) “My dad had a timeshare and died without a will. I don’t want it. What do I do?”

Other articles you may find interesting:

Using a Power of Attorney for a Parent

What Happens To Mom’s House When She Dies?

A Basic Form Doesn’t Work for Estate Planning

A basic form Will
A basic form Will or Trust may not protect your family or properly document your wishes.

It’s true that an effective estate plan should be simple and straightforward, if your life is simple and straightforward. However, few of us have those kinds of lives. For many families, the discovery that a Will that was created using a basic form is invalid leads to all kinds of expenses and problems, says The Daily Sentinel in an article that asks “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”

If the cost of an estate plan is measured only by the cost of a document, a basic form will, of course, be the least expensive option — on the front end. On the surface, it seems simple enough. What would be wrong with using a form?

Actually, a lot is wrong. The same things that make a do-it-yourself, basic form seem attractive are also the things that can make it very dangerous for your family. A form does not take into account the special circumstances of your life. If your estate is worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars, that form could end up putting your estate in the wrong hands. That’s not what you had intended.

Another issue: any form that is valid in all 50 states is probably not going to serve your purposes. If it works in all 50 states (and that’s highly unlikely), then it is extremely general – so much so that it won’t reflect your personal situation. It’s a great sales strategy, but it’s not good for an estate plan.

If you take into consideration the amount of money to be spent on the back end after you’ve passed, that $100 basic form Will becomes a lot more expensive than what you would have invested in having a proper estate plan created by an estate planning attorney.

What you can’t put into dollars and cents is the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your estate plan – including a Will or Trust, power of attorney, and health care power of attorney – has been properly prepared.  As such, your assets will go to the individuals or charities that you want them to go to, and your family will be protected from the stress, cost, and litigation that can result when Wills or Trusts are deemed invalid.

Here’s one of many examples of how a basic, inexpensive form created chaos for one family. The father had decided to forego seeing an attorney and executed a do-it-yourself Will. After he died, chaos ensued because his intentions weren’t clear. The father had properly filled in the blanks but used language that one of his sons felt left him the right to significant assets. The family became embroiled in expensive litigation, and became divided. The litigation has ended, but the family is still fractured. This was not what their father had intended.

Other issues that may not be properly addressed when basic forms are used: naming the proper executor, guardians and conservators, caring for companion animals, dealing with blended families, addressing Payable-on-Death (POD) accounts and end-of-life instructions, to name just a few.

Avoid the “repair” costs and meet with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state to create an estate plan that will suit your needs.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (May 25, 2019) “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”

Are No-Contest Clauses Valid In Florida?

No-contest clause in a will.
No-contest clauses threaten troublemaking heirs with disinheritance.

A Brief History of No-Contest Clauses

No-contest, or in terrorem, clauses have been used in Wills for centuries. These clauses usually state that if a beneficiary under the document contests the validity of the document and loses, that beneficiary receives nothing. Of course, if the beneficiary wins, the document is invalid and so is the clause. These clauses were almost always upheld because, under the common law (non-statutory law created by custom and courts), there was no legal right to inherit anything. A bequest was a gift made by the deceased person, who had complete discretion as to how and when to leave that gift. So any action taken by a beneficiary that was detrimental to the probate of a Will violated the no-contest clause and the beneficiary’s bequest was forfeited.

But things changed over time and U.S. courts, including those in Florida, began to construe those clauses very strictly. For example, in 1959 in Kolb v. Levy, a Florida appeals court ruled that a contractual claim filed by one beneficiary against her mother’s estate – a claim so large that if she succeeded in a lawsuit it would have consumed most of her mother’s estate – did not violate the non-contest clause because it didn’t directly challenge the validity of the Will.

That’s where Florida law stood until the 1990s, as ideas about an individual’s right to have access to the courts to redress grievances changed. The Florida state legislature declared that no-contest clauses violated such public policies and passed two statutes prohibiting the enforcement of no-contest clauses in Will and Trusts.

Florida’s No-Contest Statutes

Florida Statute §732.517 states that a “provision in a will purporting to penalize any interested person for contesting the will or instituting other proceedings relating to the estate is unenforceable.” Its sister statute, Florida Statute §736.1108, applies to Trusts created on or after October 1, 1993, and states that a “provision in a trust instrument purporting to penalize any interested person for contesting the trust instrument or instituting other proceedings relating to a trust estate or trust assets is unenforceable.”

Currently, Florida is the only state that absolutely prohibit the enforcement of no-contest clauses in Wills and Trusts. A couple of states still enforce them most of the time, but the majority of states consider them on a case-by-case basis. If your Will or Trust was drafted in another state and includes a no-contest clause, it won’t be enforced in a Florida probate court.

Why Are No-Contest Clauses Sometimes Still Used in Florida?

So why do some Florida attorneys still put no-contest clauses in Wills and Trusts if they know they’re not enforceable? Mainly to try to prevent frivolous litigation. Many clients want these clauses in their documents – even though they understand that a Florida court won’t enforce them – because they hope that it shows their beneficiaries, and potentially a judge, their intent as to how they wanted their assets distributed. Does it work? I don’t know. Maybe it does sometimes, but a truly litigious person certainly won’t be stopped by it.

Many Floridians now use a Trust as their primary estate-planning tool. With a Trust-based estate plan, there’s virtually no risk of a Will contest since a Pour-Over Will essentially says nothing. But Trust litigation is always a possibility. Occasionally, the contest relates to the validity of the trust, but, more often, trust litigation involves disputes between a beneficiary and the trustee regarding trust interpretation and asset distributions.

Alternatives to No-Contest Clauses

Depending on the client’s specific situation, there may be other ways – other than using unenforceable no-contest clauses – to prevent or minimize potential litigation risks when a Trust is involved. Creating and funding separate Trusts for problem beneficiaries, adding Trust Protector provisions, or adding a mediation clause may help keep a disgruntled beneficiary from depleting trust assets in a drawn-out court battle.

So, while Florida courts won’t enforce a no-contest clause in a Will or trust, there may be other ways to minimize – although not completely eliminate – the possibility of litigation. Greed, jealously, family dynamics, and money problems are great motivators for litigation, and a few words on a piece of paper are unlikely to stop all.

If you’re worried about preventing potential litigation, or if you think you may have a legitimate reason to contest a Will or Trust, contact an attorney for guidance.

Your Executor Doesn’t Want to Serve?

Your Executor may decline to serve.
Your Executor (Personal Representative) may decline to serve if you don’t prepare ahead.

When you’ve finally decided who you trust enough to serve as your Executor (called a Personal Representative in Florida), you’ll need to take the next step. It involves having a conversation with the person about what you’re asking her to do. You’ll need to ask if she is willing, says the Pocono Record in the article “Don’t assume person is willing to be your executor.” People are often flattered at first when they are asked about this role, but if they don’t fully understand the responsibilities they may decide not to serve just when you need them the most.

Once your Executor has agreed to act on your behalf and you have a Last Will and Testament prepared by an estate planning attorney, tell your Executor where your original Will is located. Remember that in addition to knowing where the document is, she’ll also need to have access. If the original Will is kept at home in a fire-proof box or a locked document box, be sure to tell her where the key is located.

If you feel that the Will would be safer in a bank’s safe deposit vault, make sure that your Executor will be able to access the safe deposit box. That may mean adding her to the list of people who have access. After your death, she may be permitted to enter the box with a bank representative solely for the purpose of obtaining the Last Will and Testament – nothing else.  However, you should check with your branch first.

After you die, your Executor (Personal Representative) and your estate’s attorney will file your original Last Will and Testament with the probate court. The judge then issues Letters of Administration (called Letters Testamentary in other states), which says that your Executor has the authority to open the safe deposit box to inventory its contents. The Executor must complete an inventory form and have any personal property found in the safe deposit box appraised at its fair market value as of the date of your death.

To make your Executor’s job easier, create a list of your assets and debts and include information she’ll need to complete her task, such as account numbers, titling, etc. She’ll also need contact information and account numbers for insurance policies (homeowners, car, Medicare supplements, life), veterans’ benefits, pensions, retirement accounts and any other assets.

Some people store their information on their computer. But if your Executor can’t access your computer due to distance, or can’t get into your computer because she doesn’t have your password, you may want to create a hard copy document in addition to keeping the information on your computer.

Taking on the role of an Executor (Personal Representative) is a big job. You can show your appreciation, even after you are gone, by making it easy for your Executor to find all the information she’ll need.

Reference: Pocono Record (May 1, 2019) “Don’t assume person is willing to be your executor”

Prince’s Estate Battle Drags On

Prince's estate is bleeding money
Prince’s estate is bleeding money because he never created an estate plan.

Three years later and Prince’s estate remains as unsettled as it was on the day he died in his beloved Paisley Park mansion, located just outside of Minneapolis, says the New York Post’s Page Six in the article “Fight over Prince’s $200 M estate could go on for years.”

The estate, which includes a 10,000 square foot Caribbean villa in addition to Paisley Park and master tapes of his recordings, has been estimated by some to be worth in the neighborhood of $200 million. But what will be left after all the battles between heirs and the consultants (whose fees are adding up)?

The heirs are now in a court battle with the estate’s administrator, which has already blown through $45 million in administrative expenses. That’s from a probate-court petition filed by Prince’s heirs. They’ve asked the court for a transition plan and a new administrator, which is scheduled for the end of June.

One observer noted that Prince’s estate may take decades to resolve – all because there was no Will.

So a judge had to determine who Prince’s heirs were. More than 45 people stepped up to claim inheritance rights when the Purple One died in 2016. Some said they were wives, others said they were siblings and one said he was the artist’s son. DNA testing debunked that claim.

The list of heirs has been narrowed down to six: his full sister, Tyka Nelson, and half siblings Norrine Nelson, Sharon Nelson, John Nelson, Alfred Jackson and Omarr Baker.

Until fairly recently, the heirs were divided and quarrelling among themselves. For now, they have come together to challenge the court appointed bank, Comerica, that became the estate’s administrator. They don’t agree with Comerica’s cash flow projections, accounting, or inventory of Prince’s estate assets. They also claim that Comerica is not being responsive to their concerns and that Comerica is the reason that Prince’s estate is $31 million behind on estate taxes.

The company stated that it was the best possible administrator of the estate and insisted it is making all tax payments necessary to settle the estate.

Everyone needs to have at least a Will (even with a small estate), so that heirs are not left battling over assets. While Prince may have thought of himself as too young to die, a Will and a plan for his estate would have preserved his assets for his heirs and let him determine what happened to his music and his artistic legacy.

Reference: New York Post’s Page Six (April 19, 2019) “Fight over Prince’s $200 M estate could go on for years.”

Other articles you may find interesting:

Tom Petty’s Heirs Battle Over His Estate

Angelina Jolie Leaving Her Estate to One Child?

Widowed? What Happens Next?

A new widow
Newly widowed? It can feel as if you’re in the middle of a tsunami of decisions; take it slowly and accept help.

Becoming a widow or widower after decades of marriage is crushing enough, but then comes a tsunami of decisions about finances and tasks that demand attention, when you are least able to manage it. Even highly successful business owners can find themselves overwhelmed, says The New York Times in the article “You’re a Widow, Now What?”

Most couples tend to divide up tasks, where one handles investments and the other pays the bills.  However, moving from a team effort to a solo one is not easy. For one widow, the task was made even harder by the fact that her husband opted to keep his portfolio in paper certificates, which he kept in his desk. His widow had to hire a financial advisor and a bookkeeper, and it took nearly a year to determine the value of nearly 120 certificates. That was just one of many issues.

She had to settle the affairs of the estate, deal with insurance companies, banks and credit cards that had to be cancelled. Her husband was also a partner in a business, which added another layer of complexity.

She decided to approach the chaos, as if it were a business. She worked on it six to eight hours a day for many months, starting with organizing all the paperwork. That meant a filing system. A grief therapist advised the widow to get up, get dressed as if she was going to work and to make sure she ate regular meals. This often falls by the wayside, when the structure of a life is gone.

This widow opened a consulting business to advise other widows on handling the practical aspects of settling an estate and also wrote a book about it.

A spouse’s death is one of the most emotionally wrenching events in a person’s life. Statistically, women live longer than men, so they are more likely to lose a spouse and have to get their financial lives organized under duress. The loss of a key breadwinner’s income can be a big blow to a widow who has never lived on her own. The tasks come fast and furious, in a terribly emotional time.

You’ll likely be very vulnerable after the death of your long-time spouse. Hold off on any big decisions (like moving, quitting a job, selling the house) and attack your to-do list in stages. Some of a widow’s first tasks will be contacting the Social Security administration, calling the life insurance company, and paying important bills, like utilities and property insurance premiums. If your husband was working, contact his employer for any unpaid salary, accrued vacation days, group life insurance, and retirement plan benefits.

Next, contact an estate planning attorney to make sure your own estate plan is in order. Name your adult children, trusted family members, or friends as agents for your financial and health care power of attorney, and consider creating a revocable living trust. Update your beneficiaries on life insurance and annuity policies. If probate is needed for your spouse’s estate, the estate planning attorney can advise you (many handle probates) or refer you to another lawyer.

Deciding how to take the proceeds from any life insurance policies depends upon your immediate cash needs and whether you can earn more from the payout by investing the lump sum. Make this decision part of your overall financial strategy – ideally with a trusted financial advisor.

Determining a Social Security claiming strategy as a widow comes next. You may be able to increase your benefit, depending on your age and income level. If you wait until your full retirement, you can claim the full survivor benefit, which is 100% of the spouse’s benefit. If you claim it before that time, the amount will be permanently reduced. If you and your spouse are at least 70 at his death, you may benefit by switching to a survivor benefit if your benefit is smaller than his. Your financial advisor or the Social Security office can help you crunch the numbers.

It’ll be quite a while before you feel like you’re on solid ground. If you were working when your spouse died, consider continuing to work to keep yourself out and about in a familiar world. Anything you can do to maintain your old life, like staying in the family home, if finances permit, will help as you go through the grief process.

Reference: The New York Times (April 11, 2019) “You’re a Widow, Now What?”