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Five Difficult Lessons Learned: Advice on Dealing with the Loss of a Loved One

Unfortunately, over the years, we at PFS have had occasion to help many clients after someone close to them has died. Clients have lost spouses, parents, and, even more heartbreaking, children. In addition to causing profound feelings of grief and loss, the passing of a loved one also triggers a taxing to-do list of logistical items, which are made more challenging due to the emotional state of those that live on. We are not psychologists, therapists, or estate planning attorneys, but we want to share some of our experiences and suggestions in case you are thrown into one of these scenarios.

  • Rely on a Friend or Family Member to Help Amid the Fog. Your mental state will be changed for some period of time after the death of someone very close to you. Glenn Mickelson, who lost his wife to ALS in 2016, described it as being in a fog. Despite his experience and knowledge of financial matters, he couldn’t recall some of the instructions his attorney gave him at a meeting regarding the administration of his wife’s estate. He also found it difficult to focus on some of the estate issues because they brought up the pain of his loss. We have seen examples of this with our clients as well. It’s to be expected. However, given this mental state, we suggest that you bring a close friend or family member with you to meetings with your financial adviser or attorney and have him or her take notes for you. That way, even if the fog hinders you from remembering the details of the meeting, you will have those notes to refresh your memory on what you need to do.
  • Be Patient with the Process of Administering Your Loved One’s Estate. If your loved one died without a will or trust, he is said to have died “intestate.” This means that state courts will determine who will be responsible for administering the estate (the executor).  If he had a will, the will describes his wishes on who will serve as executor. That person must be approved by the court by submitting the will to be confirmed.  The process of administering the estate can be lengthy depending on the number and complexity of your loved one’s assets, so try to be patient as you trudge through the process, dealing with the distinct forms and procedures for all of the financial institutions or other entities with which you need to work.  Each financial institution has its own requirements on how to transfer an account or asset. They will all request a death certificate (perhaps only a copy), and some will also request Letters of Testamentary (the document that the court creates to name you as the executor).  When ordering death certificates from the relevant state entity, we suggest you err on the side of getting too many rather than not enough. You may need 10 to 15 copies for a simple estate or as many as 25 to 30 copies if the deceased had assets at many different locations and/or companies.
  • Brace for Surprises or Tension as You Divide Your Loved One’s Estate. Generally, your loved one’s will dictates how his assets will be divided, but If your loved one died intestate, state law will determine the division instead.  Any asset titled in a trust will be controlled by the trust— not the will.  Similarly, any account that has a named beneficiary (e.g. a retirement account, life insurance policy, annuity, transfer-on-death account) will be transferred to the named person(s) on the company’s paperwork, regardless of the provisions in your loved one’s will.  While some heirs are well-informed as to their loved one’s intentions, we have encountered situations in which a client is surprised by a loved one’s will or beneficiary designations or faces animosity from family members who are disappointed by the provisions of the will.
  • Keep Records Organized to Ease the Probate Process. Any asset that has a named beneficiary or is in a trust does not have to go through probate. Probate is the court-supervised process of transferring assets of the deceased. Step one is submitting an inventory of known assets. Then the executor will be required to file accounting(s) to the court and submit all of the receipts, bills, distributions, and asset gains or losses from the date of death. The courts charge a fee for filing the inventory and for each accounting. If you are the executor of an estate that must go through probate, save every bill, receipt, and deposit slip; photocopy checks you deposit; and keep all of those items organized to make your life easier as you prepare and file each accounting.
  • Reach Out to Others for Feedback in Decision-making. If you have lost a loved one, especially a spouse, you have likely lost your sounding board. It is a huge adjustment to be alone after spending years sharing life with someone. We have seen the challenges our widow and widower clients have gone through as they try to adjust to their new normal. We encourage these clients to reach out to us and let us be their sounding board on financial questions. We expect this to occur and gently urge these clients to reach out. We have noticed too that this may not change even years after your loved one dies. It will likely ebb and flow. Accept it, and leverage the resources around you to work through it.

If you want to have a better understanding of the grieving process and what you are likely to go through when you lose a loved one, Glenn suggests the book Transcending Loss by Ashley Davis Bush. It provides many examples of people going through the process. It also makes clear that you are forever changed by the loss. On the logistical side, there are numerous businesses and websites devoted to helping guide you through the steps after losing a loved one, and as always, we are here to help in any way we can, and to listen and support you in time of need.


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