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How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying

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Alessandra Malito

The pandemic has been a painful reminder of how important it is to have finances in order, especially when loved ones unexpectedly become ill, potentially incoherent or worse. 

More than 400,000 Americans have died as a result of the coronavirus, in some cases by themselves in hospitals without their families by their sides. Not everyone had their paperwork and plans in place before their untimely passing, leaving loved ones with grief and the burden of making sense of their estates. 

These plans aren’t just for the wealthy, or those with major assets like a home or luxury car. Everyone could benefit from having their affairs in order — for themselves, their spouses or their children. “There are few things in life that are more difficult or heartbreaking than having a loved one who is terminally ill,” said Kathleen Kenealy, managing director and senior wealth adviser at Boston Private. “Much time will likely be spent providing medical care and comfort to a sick spouse and loved one, leaving little room for thinking about finances, but there are some important steps that you can and should take to prepare for the inevitable.” 

See: Here’s how to help yourself and your family ‘in case you get hit by a bus’

Here are 5 things to take care of if you or a loved one are suffering an unexpected health crisis: 

Tie up loose ends 

Make all accounts known, and gather important paperwork about each if possible. “You want to avoid the ‘treasure hunt’ after someone is incapacitated or has died, and you are running out of time with terminal illness,” said George Reilly, founder of Safe Harbor Financial Advisors.

Also look for — or create — crucial documents, including a durable power of attorney, advanced health care directives and wills. Collect information about life insurance policies, investment portfolios and retirement accounts. Share contact information for important individuals, including financial advisers, accountants, lawyers, insurance agents and doctors, said Danielle Harrison, a financial planner at Harrison Financial Planning. “Give them a call to let them know of the situation,” she said. “They may have more detailed instructions of what can be done now to ease the burden for the surviving spouse. It can also be comforting to make introductions if the surviving spouse has not been highly involved with the household finances or been the main point of contact.” 

Some families use a binder to store critical paperwork. Others may want to use software or an online service, such as Everplans, where loved ones can access these documents and include other wishes. 

If an estate plan has already been created, even by only one spouse, sit down to discuss it so everyone in the plan “knows what will happen,” said Melissa Brennan, a financial planner at ARS Private Wealth. “This is the time to get those last minute updates made.” If neither spouse is capable of making these decisions, they may need to consider creating a trust. If they simply haven’t made these decisions yet, this is the time to begin estate planning. 

Don’t miss: Yes, it’s possible to update your will while quarantined

Confirm beneficiary designations

A primary priority should be placed on having the right beneficiaries named, financial advisers said. “Everything should be checked for accuracy,” said Catherine Gearig, partner at LifePlan Financial Advisory Group. “As planners, we have seen the situation where the ex-spouse or ex-girlfriend are on the accounts. We have also seen the problems that arise when no one is listed as a beneficiary.” 

Many Americans die intestate, meaning they leave behind no will or last wishes for their families and friends to follow. When that happens, the decision is up to the courts — and they may choose immediate family members and next of kin, even if those people shared a distant, or nonexistent, relationship with the deceased. Leaving behind no will can also spark battles between families, or inspire others to claim a piece of what’s left behind — as was the case with late singer Prince . This paperwork is also an absolute necessity if there are minor children involved. 

An outdated will or beneficiary designation can also wreak havoc. Even if an individual divorces and remarries, an asset will go to whomever was listed as the beneficiary — including a former spouse. 

Beneficiary designations are used for various types of accounts, including retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, stock options, restricted stock, employee stock purchase plan shares and deferred compensation plans, said Rob Greenman, lead adviser and partner at Vista Capital Partners. 

Check account titles 

Individuals should also review the titling of accounts, which can “sidestep the pains associated with probate,” Greenman said. 

This refers to accounts that have named joint owners. Titling bank accounts as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship” allows survivors to pay expenses uninterrupted, said Dominick Vetrano, a financial planner at Fountainhead Financial. 

Also see: Avoid these 3 estate-planning mistakes and make probate cheaper and easier for your loved ones  

Put together a master list

Most accounts these days can be accessed online, which means both spouses should know login credentials — especially in a time of crisis. “In today’s world, usernames and passwords are such a big deal,” said Patti Black, partner at Bridgeworth Wealth Management. Family members should share information about these accounts or use password managers that can store and track these logins. This list should also include nonfinancial assets, such as social media platforms, or access to utility accounts or the cable provider. “It’s important to think through the logistical challenges you might be presented with later and try to resolve them ahead of time if you can,” Kenealy said. 

Record last wishes and the normal ‘to-do’ list 

Talk about regular household tasks, especially if one spouse managed one area of the home more than the other (such as handiwork, yard work and other typical chores). “You can put together a short list of the people you can trust and call on, and if you don’t have those already, maybe the spouse who has taken care of those things can suggest a family friend or family member who can help when you do have to make those decisions,” Black said.  

Talking about the actual investments within portfolios may also be necessary. “Many times widows or other family members do not want to sell XYZ stock for sentimental reasons — because dad worked for the company most of his life or that was always a good stock for him,” Brennan said. “The decedent loved his family and wants them to use their inheritance in the way that benefits them most — not to maintain it as a memorial.” 

Having end-of-life conversations are difficult, but they’re imperative when someone is unexpectedly sick or terminally ill. These conversations should include emotional or intimate topics, such as the types of arrangements a person wishes for, including service or burial, as well as any other last wishes they may have, Reilly said. “It is important to not overly emphasize the financial over the personal.” 

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