Estate Planning for Couples: Preparing for a Spouse’s Death or Disability

By Attorney James A. Spella, Schloemer Law Firm, S.C.

A concern raised by many widows and widowers is that they have no clue regarding family finances.  For purposes of this blog, we will talk about a hypothetical couple Fred and Hazel who have been married for many years and have had a long, loving relationship.  Hazel has passed after a brief and unexpected illness.  During their marriage, Hazel handled most, if not all, of the family finances.  This included paying bills, handling investments, keeping track of subscriptions, charitable giving, renewing (or changing) home, auto and medical insurance, and preparing their income tax return.

The Hazels of the world assume these responsibilities because they want to, and their spouse is glad they do, or because the Hazels are headstrong and don’t want the Freds of the world to be part of their financial domain.

Human nature is not easily changed, so there will always be Hazels and Freds.  But, the surviving spouse (in this case Fred) is at a loss on how to move forward financially in an already trying and devasting time of his life, having lost his best friend.

Though we cannot change human nature, what tips can we provide Hazel and Fred to soften this reality upon the death of their best friend?

Tip #1:  Complete a ‘Family Crisis’ Outline.

This Outline would set forth pertinent information from funeral instructions to key third party contacts to the location of important documents.  We call this Outline “Plan Today for Tomorrow-Letter or Instructions.”   A copy is available for download here, or we can provide this helpful outline to you upon request.

This Outline is also important in case of incapacity, as it can provide a useful outline for a spouse, or for children who need to assume responsibility for certain matters.  This Outline can address after death matters, along with lifetime matters, such as medical information and contacts.

Tip #2: Have in place a financial Durable Power of Attorney and a Living Will/Health Care Power of Attorney.

Have an individual or individuals ‘in place’ to assist you at times of immobility or incapacity.

Tip #3: Have an up-to-date Will or Revocable Living Trust.

These documents will help ensure that your assets will be distributed in accordance with your wishes.  This is especially important if you have been married more than once.  If so, you should also consider the appropriateness of a Pre-Nuptial Agreement prior to a second or subsequent marriage (or if you are already remarried, a Post-Nuptial Agreement).

Tip #4: Have proper beneficiary designations on all insurance policies and retirement plans.

Insurance policies and retirement plans will be distributed to whomever is listed as the beneficiary, regardless of what your Will or Trust say.  Review the designations to make sure they are up to date.

Tip #5:  Make sure someone knows where you keep important documents.

Share with each other where important documents are located.  You should also consider sharing this information with your children or whomever is next in line to take care of things.  For example, if the survivor develops dementia, assistance of children will be needed.

Tip #6: Consider Co-Trustees.

Consider designating a trusted individual, such as a child, as a co-agent or co-trustee.  They can assist Fred upon Hazel’s passing, or if Hazel should become incapacitated.

Tip #7: Create a trusted relationship with a financial advisor and attorney.

Often a surviving spouse will lean on the financial advisor and an attorney for assistance.  Having these relationships in place can help ensure that Fred is taken care of and has a trusted individual to turn to.

Unfortunately, we have seen more situations where a surviving spouse is taken advantage of, so by having a trusted relationship in place in advance can help avoid these situations.  If someone enters the picture and starts to try to take advantage of the surviving spouse, having a financial advisor and an attorney in place who knows the family, can hopefully avoid this person entering the picture, or the financial advisor or attorney can hopefully spot and raise red flags and raise the alarm to stop any fraud or exploitation.

When Hazel is gone, she can’t handle these responsibilities anymore.  She will show her ongoing love for Fred by following these tips.

As important as this planning is for Fred and Hazel, it is similarly important for any surviving spouse, or single individual, to follow these tips.  This includes if Hazel should survive Fred and have a lifetime of incapacity.

Next Steps

If you are interested in starting the conversation, call our office at 262-334-3471 to schedule an appointment with one of our Estate Planning Attorneys.


Originally published: January 10, 2022.


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Disclaimer: The information contained in this post is for general informational purposes only and is not legal advice. -Due to the rapidly changing nature of law, Schloemer Law Firm makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content. You should consult with an attorney to review the current status of the law and how it applies to your unique circumstances before deciding to take—or refrain from taking—any action.  If you need legal guidance, please contact us at 262-334-3471 or [email protected].