Five Financial Changes That Happen When Your Spouse Dies

As if losing your spouse isn’t bad enough, the transition often comes with a dizzying amount of financial change. It is often a second shock, and working with retirees, I have had to help many of them navigate the challenges. Below are the most challenging changes that I see catch surviving spouses off guard.

Change #1: Your role and responsibilities.

Every household has some sort of division of labor. It is quite common for one spouse to handle the finances. It is quite uncommon for both spouses to pass at the same time. So, odds are you may be taking on the family CFO role for the first time. This is one reason I refuse to meet with just one partner when working with a couple.

People will tell you the financial items can be overwhelming. I’ll take it a step further: They will be overwhelming. Lean on your support network. Delegate what you can to individuals and professionals you trust and who have plenty of practice in this arena.

Change #2: Cash flow.

In 2011, a client of mine passed unexpectedly. Most financial planning software will default to some percentage of expenses for the surviving spouse. In this case, the couple were spending about $10,000 per month. The program automatically reduced her expenses to $8,000. While it is impossible to say exactly what her expenses in her new life will be, it is too important just to assume a rule of thumb.

After further conversations, we found out the reason that they weren’t spending as much as most of our clients on travel was because of her husband. There was also some conflict around what they spent on their grandchildren. The result: We projected her monthly expenses would go up.

But what about her income? This is the challenge. When a spouse passes, the lower of the two Social Security benefits will drop away, and the higher will remain. On the surface, this seems like it may not be too bad, but it is. Let’s look at their situation.

His monthly Social Security payment was $3,500. Hers: $2,000. Their gross income was $5,500. After his passing, it will go down to $3,500.

Pensions vary, based on which option was chosen when the decedent retired. In this situation, the client was receiving $8,000 from a federal pension. The survivor benefit was 50%. Total income went from $13,500 per month to $7,500. This created obvious challenges that may require goal, investment or home adjustments.

Change #3: Insurance and risk management.

Insurance is one of the most neglected areas in financial planning. As long as it’s working, which it is until it isn’t, it’s not something we wake up thinking about. If you think back to when you set up your life insurancelong-term care insurance, homeowners’ and auto, your spouse was on those policies somewhere, either as the co-insured or beneficiary.

When a spouse dies, there should be a full audit of all policies. The good news: This will likely bring monthly expenses down and may lead to found money from insurance policies you didn’t know you had. In this case, the client had a policy from a university he worked at part-time in retirement.

Change #4: Investment and estate planning.

On the surface, this may seem like an odd combo. However, the titling (ownership) and your estate planning documents are, or at least should be, quite intertwined. When a spouse passes, their name should be dropped from any joint taxable accounts. Spouses are allowed to roll most retirement accounts into their own retirement accounts. Whether they should is another question. Beneficiaries on all these accounts should be updated, as most people will list their spouse (and sometimes ex-spouse) as primary.

On the investment front, risk tolerance should also be addressed. It’s likely you and your spouse had difference risk tolerances. Do your joint accounts reflect your comfort level?

Change #5: Tax planning.

End of life can bring about a tax roller coaster that very few are expecting or have the mental bandwidth to pay attention to. If you’re paying a lot for long-term care expenses, those become Schedule A deductions that can drive down your tax bracket. If the client is open to it, we will have the delicate conversation about converting pre-tax money in this period to pay the lower rate.

The first year you file a single return is when the unpleasant tax surprises start. The way our brackets are set up under the current code, the joint brackets are twice as wide for most brackets, e.g., the 12% tax bracket caps out at $44,725 for individual filers and at $89,450 for joint filers. While I shunned rules of thumb earlier in this column, I am now going to use one: If your expenses drop to 80%, but the amount of income you can have in the bracket is cut by 50%, you’re likely to find yourself in a higher bracket. Not to mention that your standard deduction will also be cut in half.

I hope that you are reading this article to get ahead on your planning, not because your spouse has just passed. In either case, it would be naïve to think that only five things in your financial life will change, but once again, I urge you to seek help. Delay major decisions, such as a relocation, if possible. The financial transitions usually settle within a year, when you might have more mental capacity to tackle what’s next.

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