Losing a spouse through death or divorce can be emotionally devastating and is often a difficult time in which to make important life decisions. Yet it’s typically when many financial matters require your immediate attention—such as handling retirement assets, learning to budget on one income, making sure you’re properly insured, or figuring out your Social Security benefits.
To help avoid making emotionally driven and potentially harmful financial decisions, it’s important to be prepared should you find yourself suddenly single. Here’s how six important action steps can help protect your personal finances.
1. Update your financial accounts.
When you lose a spouse, whether through death or divorce, you’ll likely need to change the registrations on any financial accounts that are owned jointly. Such ownership changes typically require certain documentation.
If you’re widowed, you need to provide your financial institutions with copies of your spouse’s death certificate in order to shift accounts from joint ownership into your own name. In a divorce, changing ownership requires first determining how you’ll divide jointly owned assets (typically through court orders and/or divorce agreements) and then securing any signatures and guarantees required by your financial institutions.
A word of caution: Pay attention to the conditions under which you divide assets and/or shift ownership. You could face significant tax burdens when splitting up highly appreciated assets, or risk losses by selling in volatile markets. You should consult your tax adviser.
2. Divide / roll over retirement assets.
Pension and retirement account assets have their own set of rules when it comes to shifting ownership from one spouse to the other, or splitting the assets.
Death of a spouse
Generally, upon the death of the account owner, retirement account assets pass directly to the beneficiaries (often the spouse, for those who were married) designated on the account. “That’s why keeping your beneficiary designations up to date on all retirement accounts—such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and IRAs —is critical.” Even if your will makes provisions for your retirement assets, your beneficiary designations supersede them.
As for IRAs, the surviving spouse is usually entitled to his or her spouse’s IRA assets, even if no beneficiary is named. If you inherit your spouse’s IRA and roll it over into your own IRA, you must start taking minimum required distributions (MRDs) from the account when you turn 70½. You could face a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you take money out before age 59½. Alternatively, you could roll the money into an inherited IRA, begin taking MRDs based on your own life expectancy, and not be subject to the 10% early withdrawal penalty if you are younger than 59½. This might be a good option if you want to keep the money growing tax deferred as long as possible. To learn more about inherited IRA rules, read Viewpoints: “If you are the surviving spouse of an IRA owner."
Retirement assets are often split up as part of a divorce settlement through a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO). A QDRO is a legal arrangement that either recognizes an alternate payee’s right to receive (in this case the ex-spouse) or assigns to that alternate payee all or a portion of his or her former spouse’s retirement account balance and/or pension benefits.1
IRAs are divided through a one-time distribution from one spouse’s IRA into the other spouse’s IRA, without income tax or early withdrawal penalties. But this must be a court-approved transfer. Otherwise, the distribution is treated as taxable to the original account owner, while the spouse on the receiving end gets the money tax free.
3. Adjust your income/budget.
Chances are, when you’re suddenly single, you may be taking a cut in your income, so you may need to adjust your budget accordingly. Start by listing your essential expenses (housing, food, insurance, transportation, etc.) and your discretionary expenses (dinners out, vacations, clothing, etc.). Try to match reliable sources of income (salary, Social Security, pension, etc.) to your essential expenses and see where you might trim your discretionary spending. Try Fidelity’s Budget Snapshot.
If you’re near retirement or are already retired and fear an income shortfall, you might consider creating a guaranteed2 source of income by purchasing an income annuity. These products can turn a portion of your retirement savings into a source of reliable income that you can’t outlive.
4. Evaluate your insurance needs.
What you’ll have and what you’ll need for insurance can change dramatically when you lose a spouse through death or divorce. It’s important to take a careful look at all the different types of insurance that are available, to see where you may need to adjust your coverage. Be sure to review:
Life insurance. If you are the surviving spouse and the beneficiary on your deceased spouse’s life insurance policy, you will typically receive the proceeds tax free. But if you are still caring for children, you may want to either purchase or increase your own life insurance coverage to make sure they will be protected in the event of your death.
If you divorce, you have to consider (1) changing the beneficiary on your life insurance if it is currently your ex-spouse, and (2) purchasing or modifying your coverage to adequately protect your children if either of you die. In fact, divorce settlements can require that both parents purchase life insurance if there are children involved.3
Health insurance. Even if your spouse carried your family’s health insurance coverage, you can continue to maintain it for a period of time, whether you get divorced or become widowed.4 Through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), if you’re going to lose health benefits (because of death, divorce, job loss, etc.), you can continue coverage for up to 36 months, as long as you pay the premiums—which can be up to 102% of the cost to the plan.
Because COBRA coverage is expensive in many cases and doesn't last indefinitely, you may want to check out other insurance options, whether through your own employer or by evaluating individual plans. Today, there are many affordable individual health insurance plans, with costs based on access to physicians and hospitals.
Disability insurance. We all hope we never have a need for it, but disability insurance is one of the least understood and most useful ways of protecting ourselves and our loved ones. What if you were injured or sick and couldn't go to work? Disability insurance is designed to protect you and your loved ones against lost income. Read Viewpoints: "Insure your paycheck.
Long-term care insurance. If you’re in your 60s or older, you may want to consider buying long term care insurance to help keep potential costs of nursing home stays and home health care from depleting your income resources if you become seriously ill or injured. Read Viewpoints: "How to manage the cost of long-term care."
5. Care for your credit.
When you’re suddenly single, your credit can be among your most valuable assets—so protect it wisely. After the divorce or death of a spouse, you may want to request a copy of your credit report to take inventory of all the accounts that are open in your name and/or jointly with your former spouse.
If you’re divorced, you’ll want to close joint credit accounts and shift to single accounts so that an ex-spouse can’t affect your credit rating. If you’re widowed, contact all three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) to let them know your spouse has passed away, to keep others from falsely establishing credit in his or her name.
Unfortunately, a surviving spouse is often responsible for paying the deceased spouse’s credit card bills, whether these were joint or individual accounts. It’s always worth calling the credit card company, however, to negotiate better payment terms.
6. Maximize Social Security benefits.
Here’s some good news: Even if you’re now on your own, Social Security recognizes that you were once part of a married couple, and offers benefits to both surviving and ex-spouses. Widows and ex-spouses are generally entitled to 50% of their former spouse's Social Security benefits, if those benefits would be greater than their own Social Security benefits.5
As a surviving spouse, you can receive full Social Security benefits at your full retirement age or reduced benefits as early as age 60. A disabled widow or widower can get benefits as early as age 50.5
If you’re divorced, you could be eligible for Social Security benefits, based on your ex-spouse's record, if those benefits would be greater than your own retirement benefits. However, your ex-spouse must be eligible for Social Security benefits, and generally you must be unmarried and at least 62 years old.5 In addition, you must have been married for at least 10 years.
You can’t avoid the turmoil that comes with the divorce or death of a spouse, but recognizing how your personal finances might change could help you make thoughtful, rather than rushed, decisions and provide more solid financial ground as you transition to being single.