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7 Essential Estate Planning Tips for the Surviving Spouse


As a couple, you've probably taken the necessary steps for end-of-life planning. You probably have up-to-date wills, powers of attorney, and advance health care directives. Even though these documents are essential, sometimes it's the smaller things that can create the biggest problems. For instance, does only one spouse take the responsibility for paying all the bills? Does only one spouse have access to certain accounts? If only one spouse has access to certain accounts or knows how to pay the bills and that spouse passes, then it would be like leaving the surviving spouse in a boat without a paddle. I witnessed my mother go through a similar situation after my father passed. She didn't have access to his bank accounts, which tied up funds until we received his death certificate, and she couldn't find his passwords to other accounts. During a time that was meant for grieving, she spent most of the time just trying to keep everything afloat.

Losing a spouse, your best friend, can be traumatic; however, when you work together to plan ahead it can soften the overwhelming experience of losing your life partner. By preparing a plan, your time is not spent scrambling to find out what you have to do next after your spouse has passed. You get to spend that time exactly how you should spend it: grieving over a loved one.

Here are our 7 Essential Estate Planning Tips for Before and After the Death of a Spouse:

Before a Spouse Has Passed

Tip #1: Have a Comprehensive Estate Plan

This may seem like the obvious thing to do, but over 50% of US adults do not have some form of estate plan in place. Failure to have an estate plan places families in a high risk and dangerous situation of losing all of their family 's hard-earned wealth. If you don't want to leave your family's future to chance, then make sure your estate plan is up-to-date and make sure you have all the necessary documents. The documents you should consider including in your estate plan:

· Last Will and Testament

· Personal Property

· Guardianship for Minor Children and/or Client

· Durable Power of Attorney

· HIPAA Authorization Form

· Medical Power of Attorney

· Advance Health Care Directive

· Disposition of Remains

· A Revocable Living Trust

Living Trusts Comes in many different varieties. To find out which one is perfect for you, then you should schedule an initial consultation to speak with an estate planning attorney. Along with drafting your custom Living Trust, an attorney can help to make sure that your trust is funded properly and works in conjunction with your other estate planning documents to achieve your goals. To learn more about the estate planning documents listed above: Click Here.

Lastly, if it has been over five years since you've reviewed your estate plan, then set a time to speak with your spouse to review your current estate plan. If you need to make updates or changes to your estate plan, then speak with an attorney as soon as possible.

If you need to schedule an initial consultation, call us at our office (713) 229-0360 or email us today. We will work closely with you to make sure your estate plan meets all of your goals and is up-to-date!

Tip #2: Create a List of Your Digital Assets

As I mentioned before, each spouse should be aware of how expenses are paid, which accounts belong to each bank, have access to all online accounts, etc. Surprisingly, even though mostly everyone interacts with technology throughout their day, the number one thing that most individuals forget to include in their estate plan is an attachment of their digital assets. This would be a separate written piece of paper that would include all bank accounts numbers, all online accounts that have ID's and passwords (email, Social Media accounts, Amazon, PayPal, Utilities, etc.), and any security codes that are necessary. This separate piece of paper can be handwritten or typed. It is important that the surviving spouse not only knows the accounts, but how to access the accounts and the funds necessary to pay for living expenses.

Tip #3: Create Joint Accounts and/or Update All Beneficiary Designation Accounts

We've seen this many times. One spouse has an individual bank account or retirement account and forgets to name his or her spouse as a beneficiary. This happens because one spouse opens an account along time ago when they were single and never thought about updating their beneficiary designation. Then the surviving spouse potentially won't have access to those funds until he or she is able to settle the decease spouse's estate in probate. In some situations, the surviving spouse may not even be eligible to receive any of the funds. This could happen if the deceased spouse never updated his or her beneficiary designations and named an ex-spouse or an ex-spouse's family member as a beneficiary.

To eliminate the possibility of this situation from happening, then you should spend some time with your spouse to go over all open bank accounts, insurance accounts, and retirement accounts to find out which accounts you should create jointly and which accounts you need to update beneficiary designations. Once you have updated your beneficiary designations, then you should include copies of the updated beneficiary designation forms with your estate planning documents.

Tip #4: Understand How Probate Works

The word "probate" scares a lot of people, and most people will do anything to avoid it all together. However, you should understand what probate is and how the probate process works while both spouses are still alive. After you and your spouse have a clear understanding of what probate is and how it works, then you can work together to update your estate plan (if necessary) to skip the whole probate process.

What is probate?

Probate is the legal process to settle an individual's estate after an individual has passed away. There are different types of probate proceedings depending on the issues that need to be resolved and require different levels of court involvement and oversight. When a person dies with a will, the designated personal representative (also know as an executor) seeks to have the will admitted into probate. If someone dies intestate (without a will), then the court will appoint a personal representative to distribute the decedent's assets according to the laws of the state of the decedent's residence. Importantly, the probate process is a public court proceeding and documents filed with the probate court are generally available to the public.

After a spouse has passed:

Tip #5: Surround Yourself With a Good Support Group

This is a difficult time and you shouldn't be alone. Surround yourself with family and friends. You've just lost an essential part of your life and you have to go through a major adjustment. Even though this is a horrific time in your life, you've taken the necessary steps ahead of time to ease the turmoil of losing a spouse and you get to spend this time exactly how you should spend it: grieving over the loss of a loved one. If you don't have a family member or friends near by, you can always join a bereavement group in your area. Some grief support groups offer 24/7 online help. Click here to find out the 10 Places Grieving Widows can get Help

Tip #6: Maintain Your joint Bank Account After The Death of a Spouse

It's good to maintain your joint account in the event of unexpected accounts payable checks or stock dividends are deposited. You don't want to check if you have any bills paid automatically associated with your joint account. After three to five months, then you can look into cancelling your joint account and transfer everything over to your individual bank account.

Tip 7#: Think About Your Social Security Options

Through the transition of being a widow, you may have to figure out your current expenses and how to sustain yourself financially. You should meet with your financial advisor to go over your current circumstances and develop an optimal plan. Another thing to consider is learning about your social security options. A surviving spouse has the option to claim under his or her own record or claim under their spouse's social security. One nice thing about claiming your spouse's social security is that you may be able to claim your own social security later in life.

Bonus: Speak with an Estate Planning Attorney After the Death of the First Spouse

After the death of the first spouse, you will want to schedule a time to meet with your estate-planning attorney to review your current documents and assets. Your attorney may advise you to update certain documents to name new people as alternatives, retitle assets under a different trust name to maximize your tax benefits, and help through the probate process, if needed. When a major life event happens it's always best to meet with your estate-planning attorney and review your current estate plan.

Contact Kiefaber & Oliva LLP

Losing a love one is difficult, but there is no reason you need to make it harder on yourself. By planning ahead, you can protect yourself, your spouse and your family. Contact our law office today to schedule an initial consultation.

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