Well-meaning friends and relatives are quick to offer advice to grieving widows and widowers. But sometimes that advice is wrong, can hurt them financially, and may even impede their ability to rebuild their lives.
Here are five things people say that just aren’t necessarily true:
1. “Don’t make any big changes for at least a year.”
“Make any big changes” in this context is generally code for “sell your house,” although it could also mean “quit work” or “run off to Tahiti.” Common wisdom says that until the dust settles from a loss as great as the death of a spouse ― the single greatest stressor on the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory ― the best thing to do is to stay in place.
In some cases, that’d be precisely the wrong thing to do, at least financially.
For example, housing markets in most of the country right now are robust. Prices are at all-time peaks, and mortgage rates are still relatively low. Since the death of a spouse can also mean the death of an income, it behooves the bereaved to take a hard look at their finances posthaste. If you own a house and you know you will struggle to afford it on one income ― or if you will need the equity to live on ― now may be the best time to sell. The market favors sellers at the moment, and waiting may cost you. Resale home transactions rose 1.1 percent in March; and prices climbed 5.8 percent in March from a year earlier, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Selling a family home can be emotionally difficult at any point, and doing it soon after the death of a spouse may just be impossible. That said, it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand if the financial well-being of the surviving spouse is on the line.
2. “Capital gains laws will help you as a widow.”
Nope, not a bit. Your capital gain is the difference between what you paid for your house and what you sold it for ― profit, if you will ― minus any closing costs and money spent on upgrades and improvements. If you are married and have lived in the house for two of the previous five years, you are eligible for a $500,000 exclusion of your capital gain, meaning you won’t be taxed on $500,000 of your profit. But if you are widowed, that $500,000 falls away, and you will qualify for just a $250,000 capital gain exclusion if you don’t sell within two years. You have just two tax years after your spouse dies to retain the larger exclusion.
In other words, the common wisdom is that you shouldn’t make any big decisions for at least a year, but it doesn’t account for the fact that you could lose half your capital gains exclusion if you don’t act quickly.
Having to pay taxes on a big chunk of money if you don’t sell within two years is hardly helping widowed spouses; it’s just adding to the stress and pressure. This is an IRS calculation we’re talking about, so there are plenty of rules, regulations, and exemptions. But still, the ceiling exists. It’s best to consult your accountant on this.
3. “Too bad you won’t be able to file your taxes anymore as married filing jointly.”
“Married, filing jointly” is the most advantageous filing status, since those using it typically are held to a lower tax rate, and in the past have had access to more itemized deductions. So, when you lose this tax filing status, it can sting. But don’t automatically assume financial pain is headed your way.
“Qualifying widow (or widower)” is a little-discussed filing status that allows you to retain the benefits of the “married filing jointly” status for two years after the year of your spouse’s death. You must have a dependent child in order to qualify, but under certain circumstances, you can even claim full-time college students up to age 24. If they qualify as a dependent, you are a qualifying widow or widower. You can use this calculator to see if someone qualifies.
4. “Relax, Social Security will pay you death benefits.”
The Social Security death benefit is a one-time lump payment of up to $255. That won’t cover the costs of a funeral, or, frankly, very much else.
And if your late spouse was receiving Social Security benefits, you will be expected to return the benefits received for the month of death and any later months. You can expect you won’t receive that $255 until you repay those benefits.
For what it’s worth, the lump-sum death benefit payment was never actually intended to cover burial costs. It was mandated in the original 1935 legislation that established Social Security, which provided no survivors’ benefits.
The good news is you and your minor children may be able to collect Social Security survivor benefits based on your deceased spouse’s earning record. If you were collecting Social Security spousal benefits already, they’ll be changed to survivor benefits, and will be set at 100 percent of what your spouse had been receiving.
Your unmarried children under 18 (or up to age 19, if they are still in high school full time), as well as dependent parents, may also be eligible to receive Social Security survivor benefits after a spouse dies.
5. “Lucky you, you just got an insurance windfall.”
While someone who is the beneficiary of a life insurance policy when a loved one dies is “luckier” than someone in the same circumstance who is not, receiving a sudden financial windfall without a plan isn’t the greatest situation in the world.
Financial mistakes are often made in times of unthinkable grief. You bury your spouse ― arguably the worst moment of your life ― and then your bank account is suddenly flush with money. You don’t have a clue what to do with it and everybody and their uncle is giving you advice. It’s not unusual for a widow or widower to pay off debt and start using the money for monthly expenses, basically draining the insurance windfall without knowing where the money even went.
So, what should you do with insurance money? It depends on what your needs are, both long-term and short-term. There is no uniform guidance, and people who are recently widowed should speak to a professional financial adviser. Among the questions to ask: Should you pay off your mortgage? Should you invest the insurance money to create a monthly income stream to replace your spouse’s income? Should you use the money to fund your kids’ college educations or your own retirement, or both?
Get guidance from a professional, not an acquaintance.