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Advice for the Newly Single

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.   

Make Your Estate Planning Personal

Estate planning seems personal because it is all about you, your assets, your beneficiaries, and everything in between.  In reality, however, estate planning documents are very impersonal because they are drafted for the purpose of conveying legal concepts; no one – not even an attorney – has ever claimed that legalese is a warm and fuzzy style of writing (there’s a reason John Grisham does not write his novels in the same prose and manner as he would a legal pleading).  So let us find ways to make your estate plan personal and unique to your particular family.

Write down family recipes.  I cannot tell you how many times my wife has wished that she had her mother’s old recipes to reference.  The problem is those recipes were lost when my wife’s mother passed away because they were all memorized.  Take the time to write down family favorite recipes so that in future years something as simple as split pea soup “made the way mom used to make it” will still be a family favorite that not only tastes great but brings up old and pleasant memories.

Create a family tree.  People all across the United States shell out millions of dollars each year to help them learn everything they can about where they came from.  This includes everything from researching their family tree to having their DNA tested to determine their genetic makeup.  Creating a family tree gives people a reference as to who they are, where they came from, and why their family is unique and interesting.  Take the time to give your family an understanding as to who they are by telling them where they came from.

Identify people in old photographs.  Ever looked through old family photos and wondered, “Who is that standing there with my dad?”  Take the time to pull out old photographs of your family and write down something about the people in the photos such as who they are, when the photo was taken, how they are related to your family, a funny story about them, etc.

Write a letter to your children and/or loved ones.  I recently spoke with a friend of mine that received a letter as part of the administration of their father’s estate.  The letter was not very long and did not touch on many issues as it was intended to convey how much my friend’s father loved her.  Seeing her father’s handwriting and feeling the paper in her hands was to her the same as sitting down across from her father and hearing in his voice say the words on the page.  My friend will hold onto this letter for years to come, and with every reading will be immediately taken down a path full of fond memories full of the warmth of a father’s love.  You too can leave a lasting impact upon your children and other loved ones through something as simple as a heartfelt letter, drafted in your own handwriting, which is passed to them along with the “stuff” you leave to them.

As I said above, estate planning from a legal standpoint is cold and impersonal because the law does not give us much to work with in regard to making a lasting emotional impact on beneficiaries in the years that follow your death.  You, however, can leave a legacy that is worth more than money and material possessions by taking the time to create for your beneficiaries memories that they will carry in their hearts and souls for years to come.  The family history that you know of, the family recipes you have tucked away in your memory, the funny stories that you know and which bring joy to your own heart, are often the most precious and important assets we can leave behind.  Take the time to make those assets count by putting thoughts and memories to paper and add those to your estate plan.

Have more questions? Click here to contact me and set up your free estate planning appointment. 

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