When I was just 52 years old, my husband, Ed, died. Even though he had been disabled for more than a decade following a debilitating stroke, nothing prepared me for the days, weeks, and months that followed. Saying I was in a complete haze would be an understatement. And though we had a carefully designed estate plan in place, I found myself at a loss when it came to actually implementing that plan. After I finally completed the daunting process, I promised myself that not only would I find a way to make this process easier for my children after my own death, but that I would do whatever I could to help ease the path forward for my own widowed clients.
If you’re like most people, you’ve never taken a moment to think about what happens after your estate plan is in place. You’ve checked that box on your to-do list, tucked it away, and never worried about next steps. (If you don’t have an estate plan, or if it’s been in ‘set-it-and-forget-it mode for years, jump straight to my blog posts on the topic !) But (and you can trust me on this!) taking time now to get a jump start on the actual implementation of that plan will make it much easier to move forward when the time comes, both for you as a widow, and for your heirs in the years to come.
- Get clarity about what will happen after your spouse dies.
Let’s face it: estate plans are complex. Because it’s your attorney’s job to do everything they can to protect your estate, your plan will inevitably be filled a jumble of incomprehensible legal terms (at least to anyone who isn’t schooled in the language of estate planning). That level of technical precision may be perfect from a legal perspective, but it can cause significant challenges for the person that plan is designed to serve: you. Even the attorneys themselves recognize the issue. In a recent survey, many said that many of the plans they prepared were never fully implemented. Why? According to the attorneys themselves, their clients either didn’t understand the plans, or they didn’t understand what they needed to do next—either immediately after leaving the attorney’s office, or at the time of a death.
To avoid making that mistake, be sure you understand what your action items are—both when your plan is created and when it’s time to implement your plan. If you can’t get the clarity you need from your attorney, ask your advisor to walk you through the plan and make an action list. It’s our job to give you clarity and confidence every step of the way.
- Hire your professional ‘A-Team.’
I recommend that every widow have an A-team—a group of people who each play a critical role helping you begin you life without her spouse. (Read more on this in my blog post When all feels lost, it’s time to find you’re A-team.) Your Estate Planning Attorney plays a critical role on that team, as does a Trust & Probate Attorney (though in some cases they are one in the same). Importantly, take the time to maintain a relationship with your attorney (easily done when you review your estate plan at least every 2-3 years), and make this one of the first people you contact following the death of your spouse. Also make sure the executor of your estate has the name and number of your attorney. And if you and your heirs work with the same attorney, that can make the process even easier in the years to come.
- Make sure your financial advisor has a ‘seat at the table.’
One of the best things you can do to prepare for the implementation of your estate plan is to be sure your entire A-team is working in concert toward your success. As a financial advisor, I see my role as much more than holding my client’s hand and supporting her through every step of the ‘widow’s checklist.’ The most successful transitions I’ve witnessed are when my client and I are able to sit down with her attorney(s), her CPA, and her adult children to walk through the plan together and create a unified plan for implementation. I make sure no one leaves the room with questions, and everyone knows what needs to be done and when to do it. It’s my own recipe for success.
Working with your financial advisor to create a detailed post-mortem plan is the key to properly implementing your estate plan so you can start moving forward again after losing your spouse. Of course, doing nothing is always the easiest thing to do, but the problems that come with that lack of action don’t age well. Neglecting to plan now can result in orphaned accounts (accounts that have no clear beneficiary and are not claimed by the decedents heirs), high tax payments, and an even bigger financial mess to clean up later on. Whatever you do, don’t procrastinate. Get clarity, get help, and work with your A-team to dot the i’s, cross the t’s, and start moving forward with your life.
 Forbes, “Why the wealthy do not implement their estate plans,” March 22, 2016