Estate Planning for Massachusetts Widows

Members of the Baby Boom generation were among the forefront of activism in the feminist movement in the United States, addressing such issues as inequalities in law, the workplace and the family. Despite the many social changes that the Baby Boomers helped to bring about, there was one way in which several couples followed tradition: for many couples of the Baby Boom generation, it was still the husband who controlled the family’s finances. This arrangement leaves many widows without a clear understanding of their financial condition after their husbands die, because they were not involved in the financial planning while their husbands were alive.

This situation is becoming more common, as women tend to live longer than men. There are several basic estate planning concepts of which women need to be aware so they are not caught off-guard if they find themselves widowed and then have to try to make decisions during a difficult time of mourning.

Locating Assets

It is helpful for a couple to keep a folder or notebook containing a list of all of the couple’s assets and estate planning documents. It does not necessarily have to be kept in a safety deposit box. But it should be in a logically accessible place so that a widow and other family members do not need to hunt for financial and estate planning information during a stressful time.

Legal Documents

There are a number of legal documents that a widow will need to be able to deal with after her husband’s death. The precise arrangements depend upon how the widow and her husband held their assets. Many couples own their homes as joint tenants with the right of survivorship, which means that if one member of the couple dies, the other owns the house outright without the house needing to go through the probate process.

Other assets, such as bank accounts, retirement funds and other investment accounts, may have a Transfer on Death or Payable on Death provision. Such provisions also transfer ownership of the asset to the named beneficiary without going through probate.

Couples with large estates may also have set up a revocable trust for their estate assets and named the surviving spouse as the trust beneficiary. In this case, not a lot will change about the widow’s financial condition for her lifetime.

For the rest of the husband’s assets not covered by the arrangements discussed above, the widow will need to ensure that his will goes through the probate process to change legal ownership.

A widow will want to make several preparations of her own. It is wise for a widow to revisit any power of attorney or living will documents and name a person other than her late husband, such as a child or other relative. Additionally, a widow will want to name beneficiaries through payable-on-death or transfer-on-death provisions on the assets that are now in her name.

Income Taxes

If a couple files joint tax returns, a widow will have to ensure that she files the final income tax return for her and her husband. Thereafter, she will need to file singly.

Health Insurance

Many Baby Boomers are on Medicare and do not need to consider their health insurance in the event that a spouse dies. But some women are still covered by their husbands’ employer health insurance plan. Widows may elect to continue coverage through the COBRA option. However, if a woman makes that choice, she needs to know that she will be responsible for paying all of the monthly premiums.

Social Security

Social Security benefits may change once a woman becomes a widow. If both of the spouses received benefits, the woman will no longer receive both checks. She will receive the larger of her or her husband’s monthly benefits. If the couple were not receiving benefits, a widow may opt to file for widow’s benefits if she is not yet old enough to receive Social Security benefits.

With a little preparation and a basic understanding of some key elements of estate planning, a woman who finds herself a widow will not be blindsided by her finances. She will be able to make intelligent decisions about how to order her own affairs going forward.