Estate Planning Strategies to Take Care of Your Spouse

RACHEL INFANTE, CFP®
Feb 21, 2019 11:40:39 AM

estate planning strategiesThere are many things we plan for as couples—like where we want to live, how many children we want to have, and when we want to retire. More often than not, we don’t plan appropriately for the inevitable. Death unfortunately is not an option. Wouldn’t it be better to know that your loved ones are taken care of and that you and your spouse were able to make these decisions together?

According to Gallup, more than 51 percent of Americans don’t have an estate plan. This can be for a variety of reasons, but we believe the main reason is people don’t see or understand the importance of it until it’s too late. I’ve had several meetings with clients over the years where we’ve urged them to get their estate planning pieces in place, and they simply wouldn’t until someone close to them passed away (most of the time a parent). At that point they realize how complicated even a simple situation can be when there are no instructions. I encourage you not to wait until it’s too late.

Here are five ways in which you can best plan for your spouse and loved ones:

1. Don’t be Afraid to Chat Through a Scenario or Two

This may sound morbid, but sometimes it can be helpful to talk through a scenario in order to guide the planning process. Just the other day my husband and I had a detailed discussion on what/how we would handle a house fire. We determined all of our escape routes and how we would navigate getting everyone out of the house safely. The same can be true for talking through a death. Ask your spouse the question, “What would you want/need to know if I were no longer here?” Sometimes it’s useful to shape a perspective by actually discussing a specific scenario.

download our resources2. Write Everything Down

More often than not, there’s a lot of searching that inevitably happens when a spouse dies. Especially for the things the surviving spouse wasn’t personally handling. This isn’t just financial information, think of everything you handle on a day to day basis to keep your household running. Here are some things I’d include on your spouse “cheat sheet” or what we would refer to as a Letter of Instruction and Notes to My Survivors:

  • Details of all your personal investment accounts (employer plans, IRAs, checking accounts, etc.):
    • Account numbers
    • Where it’s held (name of custodian)
    • Title/type of account
    • Online login information
    • Phone number of the custodian if there’s one listed on your most recent statement
    • Beneficiaries listed (if any)
  • Life insurance details:
    • Name and phone number of Insurance company
    • Death benefit value
    • Beneficiaries
  • Personal debt details (credit cards, student loans, mortgages, car loans, etc.):
    • Name of lender
    • Account numbers
    • Online login information
    • Balances
    • Payment details including whether or not it’s an automatic payment or manual and when the payment is due. Consider Creating a Digital Estate Plan.
  • Any other monthly bills you handle (electricity, gas, phone, cable, etc.):
    • Name of company
    • Account numbers
    • Online login information
    • Payment details including whether or not it’s an automatic payment or manual and when the payment is due.
  • Social Security number and date of birth
  • Other miscellaneous items:
    • Important people – contact information for your financial advisor, estate planner, insurance agent, tax accountants
    • Childrens’ information (if minors) – Social Security numbers, date of birth, doctor’s information (including any known allergies), etc.
    • Service information – Contact information and details for any regular servicing you have done (trash pick up, lawn care, sprinkler systems, pool cleaning, house cleaning, etc.).
  • Any special wishes:
    • I’d like to be buried here.
    • I’d like this music played at my service.
    • I do or don’t want to be cremated.
    • I do or don’t want to donate my organs.
    • I’d like our children growing up knowing…
    • I’m passionate about continuing my legacy in this way…

It’s important to note that all of this information is ever changing. I’d recommend reviewing and updating this document together every year to make sure it is up to date.

Download Letters of Instruction and Notes to My Survivors [PDF]

3. Include Other People

Now that you’ve compiled a significant amount of important information, find others you can share it with. Grief can be an overwhelming feeling that may require help from others. It might be a good idea to share some of this information with a close family member or friend so in the event of an unexpected death, there are other people familiar with your situation that can step in and offer your spouse support.

4. Get Your Affairs in Order

I cannot stress enough how important it is to have your estate plan in place. It may or may not involve (or require) high levels of complication and it doesn’t necessarily have to carry a high price tag. There are many factors that make having an estate plan worthwhile, but first it’s important to understand how assets will pass at your death. Any account (or asset) that has a beneficiary tied to it will pass directly to those listed. If an asset is titled to a trust, those will pass through your trust and will be distributed per your trust instructions. If you own any assets jointly (like a house or a checking account) those will usually pass directly to the other joint owner. Any other asset you own that doesn’t have a beneficiary listed, is not titled to a trust or is not jointly owned with someone else, will go to probate court and pass through instructions left in your will (if no will then the state decides for you). Here are just a few reasons to have your estate planning affairs in order:

  • YOU get to decide how your estate gets distributed through instructions you leave in your will or trust.

  • Estate and income tax planning – Depending on the size of your estate you may owe federal and/or state estate tax. The unlimited marital deduction allows a spouse to leave all or part of their assets to their surviving spouse without risk of federal estate tax liability.

  • Guardianship – If you have minor children it’s extremely important to name a guardian who ultimately would become the caretaker for your children upon both of your deaths. If you don’t name a guardian, the state court will appoint one for you.

Here are a few other reminders:

  • Beneficiaries – Check your beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts and life insurance policies on a regular basis. A primary beneficiary will inherit whatever percentage you’ve stated upon your death. A contingent beneficiary will only inherit if your primary beneficiary pre-deceases you. Beneficiaries can be added on other asset types as well (house, checking account, etc.) through a transfer on death (TOD) or payable on death (POD) designation. I’d consult with an attorney to make sure your beneficiaries are setup correctly.

  • Healthcare Directive and Power of Attorney – In addition to a will and/or trust, it’s equally as important to have a healthcare directive and power of attorney established. The healthcare directive appoints someone to make health care decisions on your behalf in a situation in which you are unable. A power of attorney allows someone to make financial decisions on your behalf when you’re unable. Most of the time people appoint a spouse as their health care agent and power of attorney. It’s important to add a successor in case something were to happen to both you and your spouse simultaneously.

5. Understand the Importance of Life Insurance

Often times when one spouse dies the surviving spouse sees a drop in income. One way to protect that income is through life insurance. There are many factors to consider when figuring out how much life insurance one needs. This includes:

  • Your age

  • How many years you have left to work

  • The age of your children and the financial costs they currently carry and any future costs you want to plan for

  • How much income your household relies on you to bring home

  • How much debt you have

  • How much you have saved

Often times these can be covered using term life insurance, which simply is “renting” a life insurance policy for the period of time in which it’s needed. The younger you apply for a policy the lower the premium. Your financial advisor can help you determine a comfortable amount of life insurance that will cover your needs.

To sum it up, there is a lot of planning amongst couples that simply doesn’t get discussed or done. We have busy lives and focus so much of our attention on the here and now. It’s easy to look back and wish we would’ve done things differently or prepared better. Make this planning step a priority this year and every year so that if the inevitable happens you at least can feel peace in knowing that steps were taken to guide the path for all the next steps you’ll have to take.

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