Skip to Content Top

Estate Planning for Surviving Spouses

Close up of an older man's faceWhen a person loses his or her partner in marriage, in addition to the burden of grief, there are also many other complicated issues that must be addressed. These include the legal needs of the surviving spouse and the creation of a new or revised estate plan

The most appropriate estate plan for a surviving spouse largely depends on the person’s individual circumstances, as well as his or her future life goals. If there is a high probability that the individual will at some point remarry, as is often the case with younger people who lose a partner, a temporary estate plan may be the best option. On the other hand, if the person is likely to remain single, a more permanent plan should be designed.

Children or Dependents

Guardianship of any minor children is the first issue that should be addressed. A new contingent or alternate guardian should be named to take the survivor’s place if something should happen to him or her. This should be reflected in a new will as soon as possible.

Revising Beneficiaries on Insurance Plans and Financial Accounts

The survivor should update his or her beneficiaries on retirement plans, life or accident insurance policies, and other financial accounts that were to be left to the deceased. In an organized manner, the surviving spouse should review all beneficiary designation forms, bank accounts, retirement funds and brokerage accounts. Additionally, all joint accounts and assets need to be appropriately re-titled.

There may also be accounts inherited from the decedent or accounts that are in the surviving spouse’s name. Special attention should be given to accounts inherited by the surviving partner, such as retirement funds, as the alternate beneficiary on such documents no longer applies. Therefore, it is the surviving spouse’s duty to submit a revised designated beneficiary form.

Durable Power of Attorney

Many married couples have at some point given each other durable power of attorney, which gives each spouse the right to advocate or speak for the other, as well as sign paperwork on his or her behalf. Such a document is quite powerful, as it allows one spouse to essentially act as an “attorney-in-fact” for the other. An arrangement of this kind typically includes a medical power of attorney as well, which gives each spouse the authority to make healthcare decisions for the other. It is easy to see that this is an important document to have changed if one of the marriage partners has died.

Wills and Trusts

Not only should the decedent’s trust and will be reviewed, but the survivor should also revise his or her own estate plan with a qualified lawyer. It is a good idea to have another professional or a trusted friend present to make sure that clear thinking prevails during the decision-making process. This is an excellent way to guarantee that all decisions are made in the best interest of the survivor. In certain cases, wills and trusts are drawn up to offer a surviving spouse a second chance to look over all documents and make sure the decedent’s estate plan is still appropriate.

Social Security Claims

In some cases, a bereaved spouse may overlook Social Security benefits. However, if a survivor benefit is available to the living spouse, he or she will likely want to pursue this option. In most instances, claims for such benefits can be filed with the Social Security Administration or the company from which the deceased received a pension that included a spousal benefit in the event of his or her death.

The needs of each person vary, but the aforementioned documents are a good place, to begin with, regard to estate planning for a surviving spouse, and we urge you to speak to a qualified estate planning attorney to handle your affairs.