Lessons Learned: Losing a Loved One

8/15/2018 - By Chris Stennett, CFP®

There is no greater certainty in life than death. As a financial advisor, part of my job is to help families create a plan for the future. This role often means having difficult conversations about a topic most of us would prefer not to discuss: death. I don’t take great joy in talking or writing about death. Truth be told, it is an all too real reminder of my own mortality. But a few recent events have compelled me to write about this topic. 

Last year, two of the families that I served lost their patriarch. Given that men are statistically more likely to die before women, this wasn’t surprising. What did surprise me was that both women had never been involved in managing their family’s finances in any capacity. Suddenly, they were now faced with a very scary scenario, “How do I move on when I have no idea what I’m doing?” I want to share with you their lessons learned, with the hope that you can share this message to anyone you know going through a similar situation.

Lesson 1: Involve Competent Outside Help 

When you’ve lost a loved one, the first professional to contact is your financial advisor. An advisor’s primary role is to serve as an objective voice, offering guidance and support. He or she can help organize the financial picture, provide prudent advice, and facilitate the conversations to aid in settling an estate. They will also be a great help after the estate is settled, as they can help their client identify any new priorities and build a plan to suit.

The second professional I would involve is a competent estate attorney. This needs to be done almost immediately after the passing and, ideally, in conjunction with a financial advisor. They may even ask you to enlist the help of a CPA so that the IRS receives the proper notification and possible payments to close the estate. Settling an estate is not a quick and simple process. If you’ve lost your spouse, navigating the probate process can feel like walking through a maze in the dark. You want to get out, but you don’t know which way to go because everything is black. The estate attorney will hold the torch and guide you to the other side, giving you the information you need, as you need it.

One other professional that should not go unmentioned is a grief counselor. Most attorneys and advisors are not trained psychologists, so they are limited in their ability to help a surviving spouse on an emotional level. Losing a loved one is traumatic and impacts people in different ways. Find a qualified therapist or counselor to help heal the emotional wounds and allow yourself to grieve.

Lesson 2: Death Requires a Reassessment of the Financial Picture

As was the case with my clients, sometimes the person who died was also the one who managed all the family’s finances. Unfortunately, most bills must continue to be paid each month regardless of a person’s passing. The problem is, how do you know what bills to pay or how to pay them, if you’ve never done it before? Often the remaining spouse is left with these new responsibilities and may be unequipped to shoulder the load.

While it’s understood that monthly expenses would go down with one less individual, it's often difficult to gauge exactly how much expenses will be reduced. Predicting to what extent a person’s monthly budget will change is a bit of trial and error. Most people will only experience this type of loss once or twice in their life, so they will have little historical perspective to draw on. 

Death can also shape our personal values and goals for the future. One of my clients talked about her husband’s love for helping educate underprivileged teens (both were college professors). In one of our meetings she mentioned that she would love to find a way to honor her husband and his passion for helping others. So, using the proceeds from her husband’s life insurance policy, we created an endowed scholarship aimed at helping local teens pay for college. 

Lesson 3: Finding a “New Normal” Takes Time

If you’ve never done a budget before, you will soon learn that you are going to get it wrong many times before you get it right. That’s OK. If you’ve never filed taxes before, you’re going to become overwhelmed with all that’s required to prepare, and that’s OK too. There may be many new responsibilities thrown at you that you didn’t expect all while you’re coping with your loss. Give yourself permission to make mistakes while you figure out what works for you. The most important thing is that you keep trying. 

A year later, both women have made tremendous strides adjusting to their new life. They admit they still have struggles, but they have accepted that as a part of the process of moving forward. When I reached out to them for comment on this article, I asked if they had any other insights that might help someone in a similar situation. Both women echoed the same idea: “Don’t try to do it all yourself.” Know that you always have help when you need it. There are local support groups, online resources, and professionals all available to help you. 

For questions about this article or if you’re in need of a financial advisor, reach out to a member of our team. Saltmarsh Financial Advisors has qualified professionals to aid with the challenges that life throws your way. 

About the Author | Chris Stennett, CFP®
Chris is a financial advisor and Certified Financial Planner™ practitioner for Saltmarsh Financial Advisors, LLC, an affiliate of Saltmarsh, Cleaveland & Gund. He serves individuals and organizations as a comprehensive financial planner and coordinator of investment activities. His areas of expertise include investment management, income planning, tax and estate planning, incapacity protection, and liability management.

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