Estate Planning Advice as a Surviving Spouse

In the most comprehensive study of its kind, scientists at Harvard and the University of Wisconsin determined that within the three month periods after a spouse dies, the odds that the other will pass away during this period is between 30 to 90 percent. 

As a result, each year, many couples find themselves in a similar situation. While the spouses recognize the advantage of creating an estate plan, they fail to do so. Other times, spouses create an estate plan but fail to adequately update it as time passes. To better prepare spouses for how to handle an estate plan in such a situation, this article reviews some critical issues on how to approach estate planning as a surviving spouse.

# 1 – Recognize Common Challenges

Before discussing various strategies that can be implemented, it helps to recognize some of the most common issues that surviving spouses end up facing, which include:

  • Couples sometimes seemingly do everything correct, which includes establishing and fund trusts and other estate planning tools. A problem, however, can occur when it becomes clear that various assets outside the trust have not been properly addressed. 
  • Some spouses keep finances in separate accounts. If the deceased spouse has not placed these assets in a trust or added a beneficiary, it is common for these assets to need to pass through the probate process.
  • Unfortunately, sometimes deceased spouses create trusts but then fail to transfer assets into the trust. Not transferring assets to a trust can end up creating additional costs and expose assets to additional tax liability. 
  • Tragically, some spouses pass away without finalizing estate plans. This can result in the surviving spouse receiving less than expected and sometimes even nothing.

# 2 – Routinely Review the Terms of Wills and Trusts

The terms of trusts and wills of both spouses should be reviewed on a routine basis. Sometimes, spouses include clauses in the documents that grant the surviving spouse a “second look” to assess whether an estate plan is still the best fit. After a spouse passes away, it is also important to carefully examine the terms of these documents.

While performing the review process, surviving spouses should also remain observant of all beneficiary designations found on documents like bank accounts and life insurance forms. While performing this review, the surviving spouse should understand that it will often be the surviving spouse’s responsibility to assign a new beneficiary designation on these forms.

# 3 – Claim Benefits

Most assets that are passed through trusts and wills are easily documented. Surviving spouses, however, should also make sure to claim any benefits or compensation from the government or spouse’s employer. For example, if a deceased spouse was employed, it is often important to contact the deceased spouse’s employer to make sure that the individual’s final paycheck is received. Also, if your spouse was receiving Social Security benefits, you should contact the Social Security Administration to assess whether you now qualify to receive any of these benefits.

Contact an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney

Because everyone has unique estate planning goals, it is important to understand that documents available online almost always fail to completely satisfy a couple’s wishes. As a result, it can help greatly to retain the assistance of a skilled estate planning lawyer. Contact Ettinger Estate Planning today to schedule a free case evaluation.


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