Outside the Box: How to confront this taboo — but crucial — topic with your spouse

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Older married couples discuss lots of happy topics from planning vacations to picking gifts for grandchildren. But there’s one subject that’s often taboo: preparing for widowhood.

Just as younger breadwinners rarely enjoy chatting about life insurance because they dread facing their mortality, retirees may avoid addressing what would happen to the surviving spouse if one of them died. Yet confronting this grim (but likely) scenario is among the most important conversations aging couples should have.

After losing a longtime husband or wife, it’s almost unbearable to shift from grief to practical money matters within days of the funeral. The process is especially harrowing for individuals (often women) who did not get too involved in financial affairs during their marriage.

Yet this is exactly what happens in many cases. About 76% of married retirees said they would not be financially prepared if their spouse died, according to a 2018 study.

In theory, many couples know they should take certain steps as they near retirement: draft a financial plan (perhaps with an adviser’s help) that includes provisions if one of them dies prematurely, share passwords on all bank accounts and complete wills, trusts, advance directives and power of attorney forms. In practice, however, it’s easy to procrastinate on any or all of these tasks.

Yet there are other, equally vital to-do items that few couples realize they need to do. Tackle these less obvious chores and you give a priceless gift to your spouse who might be suddenly alone and adrift after your death.

“You can’t be completely prepared for this situation, but there are some things you can control,” said Ashley Folkes, a Phoenix-based certified financial planner. He urges couples to draft a “letter of instruction” that covers easy-to-overlook issues such as how to unlock the home safe, where you keep the key to your bank deposit box and which trusted individuals to contact (from adult children to attorneys to insurance agents) along with decisions or information tied to them. Include any loan documents, family business holdings and real estate deeds and titles.

On an even more mundane level, it helps to create a list of key contacts that support your household. Examples include your auto mechanic, handyman and gardener. And if you’ve established ongoing service contracts with providers such as exterminators—or automatic monthly payments to gyms or other subscriptions—add them to your list.

“Everyone knows to list their doctor’s contact information,” said Dennis Nolte, a certified financial planner in Winter Park, Fla. “But don’t forget your window washer, roofer and electrician.”

Amid all these practical preparations, don’t neglect more emotional or spiritual matters. As a couple, consider what larger and more meaningful messages you want to leave with each other—and with your families.

Laura Medigovich, a certified financial planner in Purchase, N.Y., suggests creating an ethical will, which she describes as “a love letter to your family when you’re no longer around.” It can consist of your beliefs, life lessons and hopes and dreams for children, grandchildren and others closest to you.

“You can also share your wishes such as where your spouse might live if you die and that they’re not being disloyal if they move on and find another love in their life,” she said. “You might also share your legacy planning. Should your spouse continue to donate to a certain charity or pay for a grandchild’s schooling?”

In the aftermath of a spouse’s death, you’ll need to send freshly minted death certificates to a surprisingly large number of recipients, from life insurers to banks to creditors. Be forewarned: These companies probably won’t accept photocopies.

“You’ll need lots of death certificates to send out so just buy 10 or a dozen of them,” said Matthew Gaffey, a certified financial planner in McLean, Va. “If you end up spending an extra $20 or whatever, consider it a sunk cost” that outweighs the hassle of reordering more.