Losing your spouse is life-changing. On top of the emotional challenges, you may face difficult financial decisions, too: Can I afford to keep the house? Will I still be eligible for my spouse's pension? What are all the account passwords?
Taking these four steps can help get your finances—and, eventually, your life—back on track:
1. Give yourself time to grieve
Don't make any major elective financial decisions for six months after losing your spouse. Selling the house or moving assets around might seem like the right move at the time, but financial choices made in a heightened emotional state are often poor long-term decisions. "Certainly legal issues and bills need to be handled immediately," says Jon Burklow, a SunTrust financial advisor in Atlanta, "But I encourage people to go slowly because there's a lot going on financially and mentally in those first few weeks."
2. Revisit your financial picture
Once you've had time to begin processing your loss, ask your financial advisor to help you inventory your finances. It’s likely that the biggest financial changes you face in the near term have to do with your monthly budget. Are you receiving a life insurance payout? If so, you'll want to consider the best way to make that money last. What about veterans' survivor benefits or Social Security? These income sources can be critical in determining your standard of living going forward. At the same time, you might find it appealing, for sentimental reasons, to hold onto your husband or wife's stocks or other assets. Remember, though, that every financial decision (or nondecision) has a cost—potentially even a life-changing cost—so discuss your intentions with your financial advisor.
3. Examine the estate plan
Depending on your spouse’s estate plan, his or her assets and property may flow seamlessly to you and other family members—or they may get mired for months in probate court. Consult an estate attorney to discuss your options. You'll also want to take a look at your own estate plan. "When you're ready, we recommend you sit down with an estate attorney to update wills and powers of attorney," Burklow says. Also update the beneficiaries on any insurance policies or retirement accounts you may have, as those designations override instructions laid out in wills and trusts.
4. Assess your living situation
If you and your spouse were living independently, will you continue living in the same home? If so, will you need extra help? Maybe you’d rather downsize, move into an assisted living community or live with a relative. Again, your financial advisor can be your best ally, helping you analyze your financial situation and create a roadmap for a new lifestyle—whatever that might be.
While nothing can replace your loved one, ensuring that your finances are in order will provide some peace of mind at a time when you need it most.