By Mark Colgan, CFP
Losing a loved one comes with more than just heartbreak. There are a series of financial struggles the survivors will have to face, many which can have severe consequences if not handled properly. Fortunately, with the proper advice and guidance, you can mitigate or even avoid these financial struggles.
One of your top priorities should be getting familiar with your resources and routine expenses. To get a handle on your resources, make a list of all your saving and investment accounts. Next, list your expenses so you are aware of your financial commitments and where your money is typically being spent.
It is also important to know that the first year following your loss may not be routine. You may have some one-time expenses that require you to set aside additional savings. The following is a list of common death-related expenses you may have.
Immediate Unexpected Financial Burdens
After a loved one passes away, there will be some immediate, unexpected financial burdens that will need to be paid for, including:
Funeral expenses - Most funeral homes and cemeteries require payment before the service. Some funeral homes may accept life insurance assignments but may charge an added fee for it. There are alternative ways to have the expenses paid such as deducting them from the descendant's federal estate tax return. Therefore, keep all proof of payment so that you can be reimbursed when the time comes.
Buying a burial plot - When a loved one passes away and didn’t previously purchase a burial plot, it will now be your responsibility to purchase it. The cemetery may offer a discount if you purchase more than one at a time.
Urn or casket - You will have to decide on an urn or casket for the deceased. Make sure to check if they had requested one or the other before making a final decision.
Death certificate - Some creditors and other places may require a death certificate to cancel an account. Depending on the state you live in, a single copy of an original death certificate usually costs about $25.
Critical Financial Decisions Within the First Year
Within the first year of a loved one passing away, you will likely face some big money decisions:
The house - We recommend waiting to make any major financial decisions such as selling the house until six months to a year after your loved one has passed away. It’s best not to make an emotional or illogical decision.
Bills and credit cards - It may be tempting to use your personal money to pay off the deceased's bills. But in many cases you should pay them last. First, pay for the funeral and attorneys with the estate. Then you can pay the creditors with the estate – and if the estate runs out of funds before all the creditors are paid, you may not have to pay them. Discuss this with your attorney to decide the best course of action and the chances that the creditors' bills will be dropped.
The vehicle - If the deceased was leasing a car, early termination of the lease may have penalty fees unless the lessor has a death clause. If they own the car, you can use it until the registration runs out, then decide if you want to keep it or sell it.
Outstanding loans - The deceased may have outstanding personal loans or student loans. You can talk with your accountant and attorney about how these should be paid and if there is a way for the estate to pay for them or have them be forgiven. There also could be ways to escape this debt, so read the fine print and ask for forgiveness options.
Pay for Professional Advice
Handling these big decisions by yourself can be confusing and overwhelming. Rather than tackle everything alone or relying on a friendly family member, seek help from professionals.
Financial adviser - If you don’t have a trusted financial adviser, find one. Often, they play an important role coordinating your team of other advisers, organizing your finances, and advising you on big money decisions.
Attorney - It’s important to hire an attorney to help you sort through the estate and any benefits you may be liable to receive. Attorneys will charge by the hour, a flat fee, or a percentage of the value of the estate. Ask about the division of labor and the related costs. You can also see how much the paralegal alone would cost since they may do all the paperwork and be less expensive than the attorney.
Accountant - The deceased may have tax returns due, estimated taxes to pay, or other items that need to be taken care of. An accountant will help you make sure everything gets paid correctly. I recommend having a meeting with your attorney and accountant. It will be well worth the expense to have them work together.
With the proper professional help, you can make intelligent money decisions.
About the author: Mark Colgan
Mark Colgan, CFP®, is a founding partner of Montage Wealth Management. Over the last 29 years he has helped hundreds of clients navigate through significant life events that require big money decisions. He is also the author of Death’s Red Tape, your Guide for Navigating Legal, Financial, and Personal Transitions When a Partner Dies, a newly released technical guide by Mark Colgan on the logistics people have to contend with after they lose a loved one. For more information visit www.montagewealthmanagement.com.