I handle various types of legal cases, but none is more heartbreaking and emotionally difficult than when I work with someone who just lost their spouse. It is a turbulent time that can become overwhelming, especially if the deceased spouse was the one who primarily handled the couple’s finances. If you are newly single and are finding it difficult to figure out how to handle the onslaught of issues coming your way, here are a few suggestions you should follow.
First, contact the nearest social security office and let them know your spouse has passed away. Once the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) knows your spouse has died they will stop issuing social security payments to your spouse; just because a social security payment for your spouse is deposited into your account does not mean the money belongs to you; the SSA will demand a full refund and often pulls the money back out of the account without telling you, which can cause an overdraft if you have used any of the funds. There is some good news on this issue, however, as the SSA may increase your social security payments if your spouse’s social security payments were higher than yours. Talking with an SSA representative at the local social security office will get you going in the right direction with regard to your social security benefits.
Second, do not pay your deceased spouse’s bills and creditors without determining if there is a legal basis for payment to be made. There are 3 issues to consider here:
- Neither the surviving spouse nor any heir or beneficiary is liable for the debts of a deceased spouse. Although this is not the case in all states, Florida law provides protection for one spouse when the other spouse incurs debts; the only notable exceptions are social security benefits and tax debts owed to the IRS as those are federal issues not subject to Florida law.
- Certain assets owned by a decedent are considered exempt from creditor claims. These assets include, but are not limited to, the decedent’s homestead property, IRA’s, pensions, life insurance payable to a trust or named beneficiaries, assets owned jointly with a spouse, up to $20,000 in household furnishings, fixtures and appliances, and up to 2 automobiles used in the deceased spouse’s household. If an asset is deemed exempt under Florida law, a creditor – no matter where that creditor is located – may not demand payment from such exempt assets.
- If an asset does not qualify as exempt, it may be subject to creditor claims, but even then certain protections may apply. Such non-exempt assets are often subject to Florida probate, but Florida probate only requires the payment of creditor claims if certain requirements set forth in the Florida Probate Code are satisfied by the creditor. It is not uncommon for creditors to miss their opportunity to formalize their claim and thus lose all right to collect payment even from non-exempt assets.
Finally, get advice from an attorney. I am amazed at how many times I speak with a surviving spouse and learn they changed title on accounts, transferred assets to a child, revoked or changed estate plans, etc. on the recommendation of a friend, advice from a teller at a bank, a Google search, etc. Taking legal advice from a non-attorney will almost always result in undesired consequences for you and your family. In addition, you should meet with a certified public accountant (“CPA”) and a local financial planner to get the best advice for handling your taxes and investments. When looking for a lawyer, CPA, financial advisor or other local professional, make sure they are willing to work together as a team as this will result in your getting advice that builds you up for successfully handling future issues that may arise.
Becoming single due to the death of a spouse is a traumatic and heartbreaking experience. You can, however, face this experience with more certainty and less fear if you follow the advice set forth in this article. How you handle the first few issues you will face will lays the groundwork for how you will handle future issues yet to come; getting off to a successful start sets the tone for handling your newly single life.