Relationships run on a division of labor, much of it naturally evolving, some of it carefully planned. Chores are divided, roles ideally defined based on desire: I like to cook; you like to mow the lawn.

But one division of labor creates a dangerous blind spot. If a surviving spouse doesn’t have a grip on all financial accounts, it sets up a period of stress and anxiety at the worst possible time.

Having to wrap your head around everything from bills to asset allocation to estimated tax payments is the last thing you want to tackle when grieving. It can also lead to costly mistakes.

A 2018 survey by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found more than half of current widows and widowers had no advance plan in place for what to do when a spouse dies.

This often is hardest for women. Widows greatly outnumber widowers, a function of life expectancies and the common dynamic of husbands being older than wives.

And, at least for older generations, it seems women let their spouses lead on finance. In a 2016 survey by the American College for Financial Services, 48% of widows said they were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about their ability to make prudent financial decisions. Among widowers, 28% reported concern.

Moreover, half of widows who did not have a financial adviser while their spouse was alive hired one later. Only a quarter of widowers hired an adviser. It would be easier for both the surviving spouse and the adviser to establish that relationship earlier, when everyone could discuss strategy and goals. I wrote earlier on best practices for hiring a financial adviser:

Tips for helping a surviving spouse prepare:

—Start talking. If you have decades in which one of you takes care of the financial accounts, it will take a conscious effort to change course. It’s not romantic, but this is a profound display of love. And it’s not just about the financial spouse sharing information. It is just as important for the other spouse to learn and engage. Nor is it enough to have everything written down somewhere. That’s a bare minimum, but how does that help the surviving spouse know what to do, and be comfortable making decisions?

—Simplify. If you have a dynamic where one spouse loves the nitty-gritty of financial planning and portfolio management, and the other has zero interest, you need to plan around that right now. You may find it easy to cat-herd multiple retirement accounts parked at different brokerages, you may enjoy manually deciding when to take your required minimum distributions (RMDs) from retirement accounts, you may enjoy keeping a portion of your investments in an account that you actively manage. How about your spouse?

Consolidating accounts under one brokerage roof will make life easier. As will automating RMDs.

If you are still working and will have a pension, opting for the monthly payout rather than taking a lump sum (that will need to be managed) is one way to care for your surviving spouse.

If you are concerned that either of you may suffer cognitive decline, converting as much of your retirement income plan to fixed guaranteed payouts can be smart. There is no management or decision-making involved with a pension payout. You can also create your own personal pension by using some of your investment assets to purchase an income annuity that will guarantee you monthly payouts for life.

Relying on guaranteed income sources also reduces your risk of anyone taking advantage of you — and your money — by recommending inappropriate investments. Elder financial abuse is a sad reality.

—Build a team. Now. If your finances are complicated and your spouse is not eager or capable of becoming an active part of the management, creating a succession plan is imperative.

If your intention is to have an adult child step in and help your spouse, they both need to understand your plan. At a minimum you want that child to have in place a durable power of attorney — for both of you — that will allow them to jump in and be granted access to manage accounts.

Or you may want to hire a financial adviser — and, if you don’t already have one, a tax pro. The time to do this is before they are needed. A surviving spouse will have a hard enough time adapting to loss. Having to interview and hire a financial team is an unnecessary added burden. Moreover, doing this together, today, gives all of you peace of mind that the transition will be as smooth as possible.



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