Q&A: When your spouse dies, there are immediate financial steps to take. Here’s a checklist

Dear Liz: What financial steps need to be taken right after your spouse dies?

Answer: Your attorney or accountant may have detailed checklists to guide you through the many tasks involved. In general, though, you’ll be settling the estate, notifying appropriate parties, signing up for any benefits and shutting down potential identity theft.

To start:

Get 10 to 12 certified copies of the death certificate (ask the funeral home for these).
Find any estate planning documents, such as a will or a living trust, to start the process of settling the estate. That may require opening a probate case at the county courthouse.
If you don’t already have an estate planning or probate attorney, consider hiring one for help.
Contact your spouse’s employer about any life insurance or retirement benefits, such as a 401(k) or pension.
File a claim if your spouse had life insurance.
Call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 to ask about survivor benefits. If you and your spouse were already receiving Social Security benefits, one payment ends at your spouse’s death, and you’ll get the larger of the two checks from now on.
If your spouse served in the military, contact the Veterans Administration to inquire about additional benefits.
Cancel your spouse’s health insurance.
Contact banks, brokerages, lenders and credit card companies to inform them of the death and close accounts or transfer them to your name alone.
Notify the three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
Delete or memorialize social media accounts.
There are a few things to avoid as well. A big one: Don’t give away money or assets prematurely. These may be needed to settle the estate or you may want more time to make good decisions. If you’re getting pressure from family members or anyone else, refer them to your attorney.

Be careful about making big changes, such as moving or selling a home, in the next year or so because grief can impair your decision-making abilities.

Don’t try to do all this yourself. Let the attorney assist with estate-settling tasks and hire a tax pro to file your spouse’s final tax return. Also, consider talking to a fee-only financial planner. You may have options for payouts from retirement accounts, life insurance and Social Security, for example, and your choices could dramatically affect your future standard of living.

Q&A: The perils of procrastination can be huge where finances are concerned

Dear Liz: My husband was killed in 2016 and was self-employed for the last three years of his life. I hadn’t gotten around to filing his taxes until earlier this year in June. At first the Social Security rep told me we were approved for survivor benefits but within the hour changed her decision. She said that since it’s been more than three years, the IRS won’t report his credits to Social Security and that is what ultimately disqualifies my children and me. I’m so confused and feel like my stomach just dropped to the floor.

Answer: Understandably. This appears to be one of those awful cases where putting something off has profound, irreversible consequences.

Survivor benefits are monthly checks paid to a worker’s minor children, typically until they turn 18. Surviving spouses normally can start benefits at age 60, but they can start at any age if they’re caring for the worker’s minor children. In that case, the caretaking spouse qualifies for benefits until the youngest child turns 16.

Limits vary, but what a family can receive is generally equal to between 150% and 180% of the worker’s basic benefit. The average survivor benefit for children is more than $800 a month, and the average for a caretaking mother or father is over $900 a month.

No worker needs more than 40 credits, which requires 10 years of work, to qualify a family for survivor benefits. The number of credits varies by age, so younger people need fewer credits.

Even if your husband didn’t have the required number of credits for his age, survivor benefits could have been paid if he had worked for at least 18 months in the previous three years.

But there is a deadline for self-employed taxpayers to have their incomes counted toward Social Security credits, which they do by filing their federal tax returns. The deadline is three years, three months and 15 days after the end of the calendar year in which the income is earned, said economist and Social Security expert Laurence Kotlikoff of MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com.

The deadline for reporting your husband’s 2016 income passed in March, while the deadlines for his 2014 and 2015 income passed in March 2018 and March 2019, respectively.

Appeal the decision because it’s possible that your husband earned enough other credits to qualify your family for benefits even without his last few years of work. But steel yourself for the likelihood that you’ve lost thousands and perhaps tens of thousands of dollars of potential benefits.

Q&A: U.S. is best when picking a trustee

Dear Liz: My wife and I have a revocable living trust and we would like to change our primary successor trustee to someone who lives in the United Kingdom. The new trustee is not related to us nor is he a U.S. citizen. Can this be done and would our trust then become a foreign trust subject to a lot of U.S. taxes? How can we avoid this becoming a foreign trust?

Answer: Please rethink your plan, and not just for the reason you suggest.

Naming a foreign trustee very well may change the trust to a foreign trust for federal or state tax purposes when you die, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach.

But settling an estate is difficult enough when the successor trustee lives nearby. Trying to manage the process from another country could qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.

If you really don’t have someone in the U.S. whom you trust, consider hiring a professional trustee. Some banks offer trust administration or settlement services as well as other fiduciary services, Sawday said. A licensed professional fiduciary could handle this role as well. Your estate planning attorney should be able to give you some referrals.

Hiring someone could cost more than naming a friend or family member, but often the money is well spent, Sawday said, because the professional is familiar with the work and is efficient compared to a layperson who may serve as a trustee once in a lifetime.

Q&A: A collection of advice on selling collections

Dear Liz: I concur with your advice regarding selling collections. I am a retired licensed marriage and family therapist. I’ve witnessed clients struggle with caring for a loved one and their things. One family started taking photos of their loved one with much-treasured collectible objects, and recording the stories told about them. This offered increased connection and understanding across the generations. With this recorded story, it was easier to release and sell the things. And there were a few treasures that family members asked to keep, pleasing their elders immensely!

Answer: What a lovely idea! As collectors know, it’s all about the story, and many would embrace the chance to share theirs.

Dear Liz: A friend collected and has some wonderful pieces of Japanese items such as antique tonsu chests and porcelain, some of which are quite valuable. When she was updating her estate plan, her attorney suggested she ask me, as a friend and fellow collector, to be an advisor to her family about disposing of these items after her death (assuming she predeceases me). My contact info was then shared with her loved ones. Another trick I have seen is to have copies made of receipts with identifying information and prices paid placed inside drawers of valuable furniture. Whether these items are sold at auction, estate sale or upscale consignment, the information is extremely valuable in helping to determine authenticity. Naturally, this information should also be stored with legal documents. Prior to a recent surgery I also shared my information with my sister and went over the location in my files for all pertinent information. It can be difficult for heirs to differentiate Baccarat crystal, vintage Wedgwood china and top-quality French copper from goods sold in discount chains. Once they know what the items are, the internet and EBay make it easy to get a sense of the value of items for sale. Hope you find this helpful.

Answer: Very much so, and I’m sure readers will as well. Thanks for the tips!

Dear Liz: Regarding your advice to the collectors and the impact on the executors, there can be another wrinkle: disagreements on valuations among the heirs.

I’m the executor for my parents’ estate and my mother spent a considerable amount of time and resources collecting art. Unfortunately there is little documentation on the art and it is in a niche market where it will be hard to get accurate values.

I’ve decided that when the time comes, I will use what little documentation my mother had to establish values and then divide the art collection among the heirs. If the heirs want to liquidate the art, that is their choice. It takes me out of the middle of squabbles over whether or not I got a “good” price for something. And it gives me time to decide for my portion of the collection what pieces I want to keep for myself and what I want to sell. This obviously only works when the heirs are people and not organizations and they have the ability to take the collection rather than a check.

Answer: Oh, boy.

If you are the executor, you will have a fiduciary duty to the estate. What that means is that you will be legally required to act in the estate’s best interests, rather than in your own. Cherry picking a collection is an excellent way to violate that duty and potentially get yourself sued. Another way to invite lawsuits is to rely on scanty, out-of-date documentation to establish values without attempting to get current appraisals.

If you really don’t want the hassle, ask your mother to designate, in writing, who gets what. She should discuss this with an estate planning attorney to see if her estate documents need updating or if she can include a letter detailing her bequests.

Q&A: Your prized collection isn’t going to sell itself

Dear Liz: I am in the process of winding down my duties as executor of the estate of a 91-year-old gentleman who, like the reader who wrote to you, had a prized collection. I had repeatedly urged him to dispose of his prized things. I reasoned that because he was retired and had the time, and because he knew the story behind his prized items, he was in a far better position to find a buyer than I would ever be. (Knowing the provenance of the item is important because people purchase the story, not just the item itself.) He did dispose of some of the more valuable things and actually got some good cash, which he was able to enjoy. But he didn’t follow my advice completely, which meant that when he died, I had to deal with his remaining prized collectibles.

My suggestion to any older person who has collectibles is: Don’t wait to dispose of items that have market value. If you’re retired and have the time, sell the items yourself! If you don’t need the cash, deposit the money into the bank account that will pass to your heirs in due course. Don’t burden your executor — who is probably still working full time and who has bigger things to deal with, like your house, car and investment accounts — with disposing of your collectibles.

Answer: Obviously, parting with collectibles can be tough. The alternative, though, could be that precious items wind up in a yard sale or a dumpster. Collectors who sell get the satisfaction of knowing that the items are going to people who really want them.

Q&A: Death doesn’t take a holiday

Dear Liz: In a recent response, you wrote, “Your living trust should name a successor trustee who can take over managing your affairs if you should become incapacitated or die.” This sort of writing is not uncommon but it implies some people won’t die. It would have been better to write “… take over managing your affairs when you die or if you should become incapacitated.” This is important, since it is noteworthy how many people are unwilling to face the facts when it comes to being prepared and finances: None of us are going to get out of this alive.

Answer: Good point!

Q&A: Finding someone to sell your stuff after you’re gone

Dear Liz: I have a question on how to have my affairs managed after I die. I am single, with no children or living relatives, so finding someone to handle my estate is a challenge. Do you have a recommendation for where I can find a person or business, such as a bank’s trust department? I have a living trust but need to have someone sell all my assets (many are collectible and worth the extra effort in their sale). Do I need to go through probate just to ensure none of my assets are “lost” by the executor? Should I make a list of valuable items that would easily be omitted from the sale and distribution? To ensure all items are accounted for, to whom would I now provide the list?

Answer: Your living trust should name a successor trustee who can take over managing your affairs if you should become incapacitated or die. The successor trustee will be the one who will pay your final bills and sell or distribute your stuff after you’re gone. A list of your valuable items, along with the names of experts who can help with their sale, could help with that process. You can store that information with your living trust.

The person you choose doesn’t need to be a collectibles expert or even particularly financially savvy as long as they’ve got common sense and integrity. Successor trustees can hire any help that they need.

But this should be a person you trust completely because you’re putting a lot of power and discretion in their hands. If you’re worried this person will “lose” or mishandle your estate, you probably should choose someone else or reconsider having a living trust. Allowing your estate to go through probate instead would provide at least some court supervision of an estate’s distribution.

You may be able to hire a successor trustee. Bank trust departments can serve as successor trustees, but they tend to charge significant fees and are unlikely to want the job if your estate isn’t substantial. Another option might be a private trust services company or a professional fiduciary. Neither are exactly cheap, but they’re likely to be less expensive than a bank. Any of these options require making arrangements in advance — you can’t just name a company or fiduciary and expect them to take on the work.

Q&A: Death, taxes and home sales: How to handle the mixture

Dear Liz: My wife and I bought our house 61 years ago in Southern California. The wife passed away seven years ago, and I became the sole owner. If I should die owning the house, I know my daughter will inherit and her tax basis will be the value of the house on that date. But if I sell the house, I’m not sure what my basis will be. Do I pick up the 50% of what the house was worth on the day my wife died and add to that the 50% of the original purchase price that would be mine? Or is my basis the original price of the house?

Answer: In most states, only your wife’s half of the home would get a new value for tax purposes at her death. In community property states such as California, though, both her half and yours get this step up in tax basis.

Tax basis determines how much taxable profit there might be when property and other assets are sold. For those who aren’t sure how tax basis works, a simplified example might help.

Let’s say Raul and Ramona bought their home for $40,000 in 1959. In 2013, when Ramona died, the home was worth $800,000. Today, it’s worth $1 million.

At her death, Ramona’s half of the home got a new tax basis. Instead of $20,000 (half of the purchase price), her half of the home now has a tax basis of $400,000 (half of its $800,000 value at the time).

In most states, Raul would keep the $20,000 tax basis on his half, so his combined basis in the home would be $420,000. If he should sell the home for $1 million, the profit for tax purposes would be $580,000.

In California and other community property states, the entire house gets a step up in basis to $800,000 when Ramona dies. If Raul sells the house for $1 million, the profit (or capital gain, in tax parlance) would be $200,000.

Of course, there would be no tax owed on this home sale, since Raul can exempt up to $250,000 of home sale profits. Raul could use Ramona’s home sale exclusion, and avoid tax on up to $500,000 of home sale profit, if he sells the home within two years of her death.

If Raul keeps the home until his death, on the other hand, it will get a further step up in tax basis equal to whatever the home’s fair market value is at the time (let’s say $1.2 million). If the daughter sells it for that amount, no capital gain tax would be owed.

Q&A: Arizona mom doesn’t want a trust

Dear Liz: My mom is 93 and lives in Arizona. I’m in California. She refuses to complete a revocable living trust, and after several years, I have given up with the request. She states she has added my name to the deed to the house and her bank account. She believes she has done enough. She states she completed a will that she got at Office Max. What would be my first steps if she precedes me in death?

Answer: She may be stubborn, but she’s making mistakes that could impair her quality of life and saddle you with a big, unnecessary tax bill. Consider trying to persuade her to fix these errors before it’s too late.

Not having a living trust isn’t necessarily a crisis. Yes, a living trust would allow your mother’s estate to avoid probate, the court process that typically follows death. But probate in Arizona typically isn’t as long or expensive as it is in California.

What’s more important is having documents in place that allow you (or someone else) to handle her finances and make healthcare decisions should she become incapacitated. Without that, you might have to go to court, which could be a long and expensive process (especially now, with the backlog created by COVID-19-related shutdowns).

A living trust also would make it relatively easy for a trusted person to step in and handle her affairs if necessary. In the absence of a living trust, you should insist she fill out an advanced care directive that would allow a trusted person to make healthcare decisions for her. There are free versions for each state at PrepareForYourCare.org, along with instructions about how to make it valid. If she doesn’t have a computer, you can print out Arizona’s version and send it to her.

She also needs to create a power of attorney for finances. Offer to hire an estate planning attorney to do this, since it’s a relatively simple form and not likely to be expensive. There are online forms and software that can do this if she absolutely refuses to consult an attorney.

An estate planning attorney might also be able to help you get off the deed. When she added you to the deed, your mom signed you up to pay capital gains taxes you wouldn’t owe otherwise. All the appreciation in the home that happened during her lifetime would be taxable, when it doesn’t need to be.

Let’s say she bought the home for $25,000 and it was worth $250,000 when she died. If you inherited the home and sold it for $250,000, you would owe no capital gains taxes.

If she gives you the home before her death — which she essentially did by adding you to the deed — you don’t get the valuable step-up in tax basis that keeps you from having to pay capital gains taxes on the appreciation that happened during her lifetime. Instead, you would owe capital gains taxes on the $225,000 appreciation. (This is a simplified example meant to help you and her understand the magnitude of the blunder.)

Arizona is one of the many states that has “transfer on death” deeds for real estate. These deeds would allow the house to avoid probate and come directly to you. That’s almost certainly a better solution than the one she chose.

Q&A: Picking your estate’s executor

Dear Liz: One issue in a recent column was about a sibling who did not follow the will. As executor, the sibling took two thirds of the estate instead of the will’s specification of half.

This is why, when my wife and I had our estate plan created, we told the attorney that none of the beneficiaries should be the executor of our wills and none should be a trustee of our trusts. Indeed, our trusts — which own almost our entire estate — cannot have the spouse, child, parent or in-law of a beneficiary as a trustee.

Answer: Yours is certainly one solution, if you can find the appropriate people to serve. But naming an heir as executor or trustee doesn’t have to be a disaster, as long as you name the right person — someone who is honest, dependable and able to serve with integrity.