When a family member dies take a deep breath, consult professionals and don’t make any big moves

As appeared in Salon.com 

Life has a way of ramping up stress — both good and bad — at times.  In 2018, my wife and I were blessed by the addition of a new baby boy, I got a promotion, we bought a new home, my wife completed her PhD — and my dad passed away suddenly at the age of 72.  It was an exciting and tough year emotionally, and certainly, I have a lot to be grateful for.

As a wealth advisor, I had helped to prepare my mom financially for my father’s passing. Even so, the details and decisions that we needed to handle after his death were almost impossible to anticipate.  Did you know that you are not supposed to take the staples out of your will to make copies?  I imagine most people don’t.  The court may view the removal of staples as tampering since they have no way to know if a page was taken out and a new page inserted.  Luckily, my mom’s will had not been unstapled, but it could have been a lesson learned the hard way.

Now that it has been almost a year since my dad passed away, I would like to offer some insight that may help ease this process for others going through a similar time.

First — breathe.  Take a deep breath.  I wish someone had told our family to do this.  We, or maybe I, wanted to get everything done as quickly as possible to clean up all the loose ends.  At times, the process was overwhelming; I had to rely on our attorneys, accountants, and whomever else would listen to assist me to properly retitle the accounts and complete the paperwork necessary to settle my father’s estate.  This may have been a way for me to cope, but I wanted to make sure everything was above board, and that we were meeting all the appropriate deadlines.

As I look back on my frenetic approach, I discovered that there was time to work through this process; not everything has to be done all at once!  To help others know what to do after a loved one passes away, we created this useful End to Life Checklist to help navigate this process. It includes very helpful timeframes for when critical tasks need to be completed.

I also learned, first hand, the value of working closely with other wealth advisors and professionals, including estate planning attorneys and CPAs. For example, be cautious when setting up an appointment with the courts. It’s best to speak with an attorney before you do.  Also, make sure to track the money that is being spent on funeral expenses and medical bills.  Final medical expenses could easily exceed 10 percent of Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) in the year of death and allow for a tax deduction on the decedent’s final income tax return.  Alternatively, medical expenses can be deducted on the estate-tax return as well as funeral expenses.  One thing that is clear is that your brain is not going to be clicking on all cylinders.  There are a lot of emotions rolling around, and it’s good to have professionals with clear heads to advise you on your situation.

I also recommend that widowed spouses wait for a period of six to twelve months before making any life-changing decisions, like selling their house. The most common thing I hear from widows, including my mom, is that their house is too big and they need to downsize.  While that may be entirely the right decision, it makes a lot of sense to hit the “pause button” before jumping into what could be a major life change.  Consider a grace period to let things settle down.

Seeking support and advice during this transitional time may also provide comfort and clarity. Our educational resource, Her Wealth®,has a wealth of information available to newly widowed spouses including six common questions newly widowed spouses face.