How to Prepare for a Spouse’s Death

How to Prepare for a Spouse’s Death

I recently heard from a woman whose husband was just diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her question to me: “What should a woman do before her husband dies?” My heart went out to her, along with my admiration. Death is not easy to talk about, let alone prepare for. But instead of going into denial, she went into action.

Her question immediately sent me back 12 years to when my father became terminally ill. I remember going to my mother and asking, “Do you know what Dad has planned for you when he dies?”

“Oh yes,” she replied quickly, but when I pressed her for details, she couldn’t tell me. She also made it abundantly clear that this was not a conversation she wanted to have. I made it even clearer: avoidance was not an option. Here’s what we did:

  1. We had “the talk.” I had my mom sit down with my dad and we looked at all the financial documents together: bank statements, investments, estate planning, etc. This was not, by any means, an easy conversation. Dealing with death is emotionally excruciating. Nerves were frayed. My mom glazed over. My dad lost patience. I kept scratching my wrist (a nervous habit) until it bled.  But by the end of “the talk,” my mom knew where every penny was and what arrangements he had made — and not made.
  2. We assembled “the team.” My dad was very much a do-it-yourselfer. I wanted my mom to have her own team of professionals to support and guide her (during and after). First on our list was to hire an estate lawyer. My sister, my mother and I interviewed three and decided on one. We met with him first, then brought in my father for a second meeting. My dad attended reluctantly. But at least he came. Together my parents created a very good, tax-efficient estate plan, which my mom not only understood but had a big role in creating. We updated documents. We made sure the will, power of attorney and other related documents reflected accurate updated information and their current wishes.
  3. We envisioned a future without Dad. My mom started thinking about living single: how much money she’d need to live on (a lot — she wasn’t going to work nor did she have to, but she did like to spend); how she wanted her money invested (very conservatively); and who would assist her with this. My sisters and our spouses helped her find an investment advisor (we interviewed three). We also hired a C.P.A. But after a while, it became clear he wasn’t a good fit, so she hired someone else. She is in contact with her team on a regular basis to this day.
  4. We started having family meetings. These meetings, though often emotional, were absolutely wonderful in getting everyone on the same page while Dad was still alive. Meetings included my sisters, spouses, and all the grandchildren (we eventually had great grandkids crawling around too). My dad let everyone know what his wishes were, especially for philanthropy, and enrolled the whole family to the board of his foundation. These meetings drew us closer in many ways.
  5. Mom talked to friends. She’d had several friends who lost their husbands, so she talked to them at length. They gave her great advice that really helped her see life does go on, happily so.

My dad passed away 10 years ago this month. By the time he died, all my mother had to do was grieve. Every detail was in order. There were no surprises. All papers signed. All major decisions made. Her team was in place. Practically speaking, his passing was seamless. And indeed, today my mother is living a rich, full and very happy life, in large part because of all the preparation we did beforehand.

Barbara Stanny is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.

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