Dear Liz: Do you have any resources available for young widows with children? My husband died 10 months ago and I am struggling to make sense of my financial situation, which is complicated because of debt. I would be so grateful for help.
Answer: Widows and widowers are often advised not to make any big decisions in the first year of their bereavement. Unfortunately, bill collectors aren’t willing to wait that long.
You need to determine your liability for your late husband’s debts. Don’t rely on what collection agents tell you. They may insist you have a legal or moral obligation to pay a bill when you don’t. An experienced probate or bankruptcy attorney can help you sort through the debts to see which ones need to be paid from your husband’s estate, which you may be responsible for and which can go unpaid. Student loan obligations, for example, typically end at death unless you or someone else co-signed the loans.
You also need to make sure you get all the money and property to which you’re entitled. You and your children may qualify for Social Security survivor benefits. (You can find out more at http://www.ssa.gov.) You also may inherit retirement funds and life insurance policies that are protected from creditors. Life insurance policies that name you as a beneficiary, for instance, pass outside your husband’s estate and don’t have to be shared with creditors — again, regardless of what collection agencies may tell you.
Once you’ve sorted out his estate, you can begin rebuilding your financial life for yourself and your children. A fee-only planner can help you get started. You can get referrals from the Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com, which represents planners who charge by the hour, or the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors at http://www.napfa.org, which represents planners who charge retainer fees or a percentage of assets they manage for you.