By Andrew J. Tapparo, MSF, RICP®
Losing a spouse is a devastating experience that can leave you feeling overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and uncertain about your future. The reality is that widowhood can happen to anyone, at any time, regardless of age or financial status. That’s why it’s crucial to take proactive measures to make sure you’re financially prepared for the unexpected.
Although it may be impossible to prepare emotionally for the loss of a spouse, answering the following questions could help alleviate the financial stress in case you find yourself facing the challenging period of widowhood.
Do You Have a Trust in Place?
If you and your spouse do not have a trust, consider drawing one up in order to control where your assets go now, and in the future. A trust ensures assets are protected and disbursed to the right heirs. You can have both a will and a trust, but while a will takes effect after one’s passing, a trust can be used both during life and after one’s passing. Be sure to ask your advisor about state laws when it comes to the differences between wills and trusts. For instance, in New York State a will must go through probate court, while a trust avoids probate court.
Without a trust, it can take longer to get closure, and the details about how assets should be passed on can get messy in the process. If you do have a trust, make sure it’s up to date by working with a qualified estate attorney to get all the legalities in place.
What Benefits Are Available to You?
Understanding your benefits is another important aspect in preparing for the possibility of widowhood. Things like Social Security, life insurance, pensions, and annuities should be assessed ahead of time so that you're not struggling to make difficult financial decisions immediately after loss.
If your spouse is still working, there may be other employer-sponsored benefits available as well. Work together with your loved one to make a list of all the benefits either of you will receive in the event of widowhood as well as the information needed to access these resources. As difficult as it may be, talking about these benefits ahead of time can help you both feel prepared if widowhood were to happen.
Do You Have Access to All Financial Account Information?
One of the hardest parts of widowhood is moving forward without the support of your spouse. Maybe they were the one who handled all of the day-to-day financial matters and now you are stepping into this role for the first time in your life. It can be overwhelming, to say the least.
The best way to prepare for this possibility is to make sure both spouses have access to important financial account information including checking and savings accounts, retirement plans, and other investments. At a minimum, both spouses should have access to the account numbers and any login information. Also keep in mind that in some cases, settling an estate may require a birth certificate and/or marriage certificate (even if you are divorced), so it’s important to keep these in a safe and accessible location.
Additionally, understanding how these accounts are titled (joint or individual), as well as who is listed as the beneficiary, are crucial aspects of estate planning. Having joint ownership of all accounts, or listing each other as beneficiaries, can help the assets transfer smoothly by avoiding probate.
What Does Your Spending Plan Look Like?
Life after widowhood will be challenging, but a detailed spending plan can help ease the transition by alleviating the stress of making day-to-day financial decisions. Start by creating a current budget, if you don’t have one already. Together, you and your spouse can discuss the types of expenses that will either be added or removed from the budget if widowhood were to happen. It may seem strange in the moment, but it can be an incredible aid when planning for the future.
Special attention should be paid to debts like mortgage payments, monthly utilities, car payments, credit card debt, and other loans. Understanding how these debts will be managed in the event of widowhood is crucial to creating a sound financial future for the surviving spouse. The last thing either spouse wants to do is leave behind debt that their loved ones can’t manage. Planning ahead can help alleviate this burden and provide comfort to both spouses knowing that their partner is going to be okay on their own.
Are You Aware of the “Widow’s Penalty”?
One factor that can impact your financial future is what’s called the “widow’s penalty”. The term “widow’s penalty” refers to the situation where a surviving spouse ends up paying higher taxes on a potentially reduced income following the death of their partner. There are a number of reasons for this scenario that can become a frustrating and expensive lesson for the surviving spouse.
The first reason for this occurrence is when you go from married filing jointly to filing single, you lose 50% of the standard deduction. This means that more of your income will be counted in your tax bill, so you’ll have to pay more than you’re used to, which can be a surprise to some.
Further, if you have not done any Roth conversions prior to this point, then the surviving spouse will have to take required minimum distributions (RMD) from the combined IRAs/401(k)s. Even if the RMD amount is the same as before, the tax bill will still be higher because of the different filing status.
In addition to that, the different filing status can also affect IRMAA (Income-Related Monthly Adjustment Amount). IRMAA is a surcharge on Medicare Parts B and D. Simply put, if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) is above a certain threshold, you will have to pay extra on your premiums for Parts B and D, and that surcharge goes up as your income goes up. For a married couple, the threshold is $194,000 (in 2023), but if filing single, the threshold is only $97,000. As you can see, going from a married filing status to single filing status, but keeping the same income, will increase your chances of having to pay that Medicare surcharge.
Not only can there be added financial responsibilities and burden on the surviving spouse, there also might be the chance of paying a higher tax rate to boot.
Do You Have a Trusted Advisor?
Having a strong support system will carry you through widowhood and it will give you the strength to move forward. Part of that support system should be a trusted financial professional.
Whether you are working with a financial advisor already, or you are looking to hire one, take your time getting to know them and make sure you like working together.
If there is one spouse who tends to handle all financial matters, make it a point to introduce the other spouse to the financial team. Widowhood is a vulnerable time and it’s vital that both spouses feel comfortable reaching out for help with important financial matters. If one or both spouses don’t trust the advisor, it may be necessary to reevaluate the relationship.
Your well-being is of the utmost importance during this process, so don’t be afraid to interview several financial professionals before choosing the one you trust the most.
We Are Here to Support You
Although it can be challenging, it’s critical to prepare for the unexpected, rather than attempting to cope with the aftermath of a loss on your own. At Tapparo Capital Management, we aim to provide clarity and assurance to your financial journey, regardless of which life stage you’re in. Our team can support you and your spouse through these difficult decisions as you consider the possibility of widowhood. As you embark on the journey of establishing a stable financial base, we’re always here to address your questions. To schedule a “Get Acquainted Call” to see if we are a good fit for each other, call 978-887-1121 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Tapparo is a fee-only financial advisor at Tapparo Capital Management, a financial planning firm in Topsfield, MA, helping clients turn their savings into a retirement income that lasts. Inspired by the quote “Choose a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life,” Andy founded Tapparo Capital Management in 1997 with a passion for helping clients enjoy a truly worry-free and fulfilling retirement and experience financial freedom. As a Retirement Income Certified Professional (RICP®), he designs retirement strategies along with sound money management to help clients retire with confidence.
Andy holds a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, and a Master of Science in Finance from Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Specializing in retirement income planning, Andy completed a comprehensive financial industry education program at The American College of Financial Services and was awarded the Retirement Income Certified Professional® designation. He is frequently quoted in the media as a financial expert.
Andy and his wife, Susan, live in Topsfield, Massachusetts, and have two beautiful daughters. Outside of work, he is an automobile enthusiast, enjoys taking road trips, and loves the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In his spare time, he volunteers with the local high school varsity girl’s basketball team as the team statistician and runs the team’s website. He is passionate about supporting charities that serve our veterans and their families. To learn more about Andy, connect with him on LinkedIn.