Although it’s the last thing you feel like thinking about when a loved one dies, grief and finances are inextricably linked. When someone we love dies suddenly, grief can be all consuming. Finances can fall off the radar. House chores are impossible. Having coherent thoughts can be hard – everything can seem overwhelming or like we’re trying to see through a haze. Life as we know it has irrevocably changed.
Every year, millions of people around the world die suddenly. In the United States, homicides claim more than 12,000 lives, 35,000 die in vehicle crashes and nearly 43,000 commit suicide. Unexpected illnesses and accidents take countless more, leaving behind spouses, partners and family members to pick up the pieces and try to put their lives back together. It can be very difficult to think of your frief and finances in the same moment. It can take a long time to return to any semblance of normal life.
But normal life goes on without you. Bills will keep coming for electricity, water, insurance and all manner of other things, as well as home loan or car repayments expected by the bank. Although you may not want to deal with even these basic money issues, there will also be other financial matters to sort out when a spouse or family member dies. It’s sink or swim. How do you swim here?
Having the expectation that things might fall apart is actually a good start. William Shakespeare says in his play, All’s Well That Ends Well, “Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises.” If we’re not too attached to certain expectations about what we should or shouldn’t be like after the death of someone close to us, we are empowered to just ‘be’ however grief affects us and our ability to function in normal life.
For Tamica Black, life felt bleak after losing her partner while she was 36 and pregnant with their fourth child. He died in a motorcycle accident. She says, “I couldn’t function after that. My mind was basically gone. I would stay up all night crying, thinking it was a terrible dream and that I would wake up to him walking through the door.” Consumed with grief, Back stopped going to nursing school and took a leave of absence from her job. Because he had been their primary provider, her finances crashed. “I had been off work for over a year,” she says. “All bills were behind. Taxes, cars, mortgage, credit cards. I owed for the new heating and air-conditioning we had installed. I just couldn’t deal with any of it.”
Sudden death is hard, but dealing with grief and finances can be even harder when they are not something that you have had to deal with before. This is often the case for many older women who have been married to husbands who did all of the banking and finance.
Hanako had been married for 46 years when her husband died. She found it difficult to notice the passing seasons, let alone think about the family’s personal finances. She just didn’t care. Besides – at 76 she had never even used an ATM. Thankfully, Hanako had daughters who were more than willing to help find all the information she needed and they have kept her from sinking and from becoming the target of scams.
Financial planner, Kathy Waites, says not only are women like this easy prey for fraudsters but they are also sitting ducks for financial professionals who wish to push their own products on them, even with the best intentions. “I always tell them not to rush into any changes,” says Ms. Waite, who runs Your Net Worth Manager, a financial planning service with clients across Canada. “I always encourage them to ask questions and to get any answers in writing. At the risk of sound self-serving, I would say, go look for someone who doesn’t sell things – someone who will just charge you for the advice and doesn’t have a vested interest in selling a product.”
Grief and Finances: Take Your Time
One of the consistent pieces of advice given by various professionals for someone who is grieving but still needs to make financial decisions is ‘take your time’. You do need to face some decisions at some point, but it doesn’t have to be right now.
Evaluate Your Finances
Breathe. You only need to do one thing at a time. Get together all of your financial documents. These can be used to assess your cash position and look at any income and expenditure that’s necessary. Are you entitled to any insurance benefits from your loved one’s death? If you can’t make head nor tail of the documents, then bring in a trusted family member or friend to help you. Did your loved one have a financial adviser?
Meet with your lawyer so that they can help you follow the steps you need to. This is especially significant if there may be complications, although generally it is a straight forward process. Of course, life can become considerably messier if your loved one died without a will, so don’t let this happen! A good estate plan can address what to do when one of you dies: how to pay for the funeral, for example, and help you to understand exactly what you own.
Change Joint Accounts
You will need to contact the bank and life insurance companies to let them know of your loved one’s death. Joint account and contracts will need to be changed to just your name only.
They need to be notified when someone has passed away. You may be eligible for assistance from them in the event of your loved one’s death.
Losing a loved one can be incredibly painful and having to deal with both grief and finances seems like the last thing on earth you’d like to be doing. Get your family and friends to help you through this difficult time of grief. Seek help from recommended and respected professionals if you’re not sure who to trust when it comes to financial matters. At this painful time, it’s also good to avoid conflict where possible, so a good estate plan decreases the chances of a will being contested or of families fighting over assets. In our experience, grief and finances do not make people behave better.
If you would like to speak to one our trusted and experienced estate lawyers, please contact us today. We offer a free, 10-minute phone conversation.