My spouse died, what do I do?

No matter how long ago a spouse passed or how long you were married, there is a void that is left. No one should claim they understand what it feels like, even if they have lost a spouse of their own, as each relationship is unique.

However, in light of this event, there are some financial considerations every widow(er) should address. In particular, members of STRS Ohio should pay special attention to some survivor considerations unique to the STRS system.

Wait before making any “big” decisions

Sometimes the best decision is to do nothing, even though we feel we need to make an immediate change. If you have recently lost a spouse, I highly encourage you to postpone the “big” decisions for at least a year.

What do I mean by “big” decisions? Considerations like selling your home, changing jobs, getting plugged in to a new church, etc. should be delayed. Remaining in the same environments (e.g. home, job, church, etc) may serve as a constant reminder of your spouse, however, in my opinion, it’s important you grieve your loss while maintaining some consistency in your life. There will be a time to make “big” decisions again, but you should let at least a year pass before doing so.

Understand financial benefits you are entitled to

As the surviving spouse of a deceased member of STRS Ohio, you may be eligible for survivor benefits. Specifically, provided your spouse was a participant in the Defined Benefit or Combined plans, you may be eligible for a stream of income, medical, dental, and/or vision insurance. STRS Ohio provides a thorough reference guide online to determine whether you may be eligible for benefits as a survivor.

Perhaps your spouse wasn’t a member of STRS Ohio or was eligible for (or receiving) Social Security benefits. Social Security provides a unique benefit to survivors provided certain criteria are met. Typically, a widow(er) may be eligible for reduced survivor benefits as early as age sixty (60). A full explanation of survivor Social Security benefits is available online.

If your spouse was receiving a pension (from STRS Ohio or another plan/company), it’s important you determine whether you are eligible for any survivor payments. Perhaps you are entitled to a 50%, 100%, or some other payment as a result of your spouse’s death. In some cases there is no continuation of benefit payments. Regardless, it’s important you reach out to the plan provider to determine your eligibility.

Revisit your estate plan

After losing a spouse, it is appropriate to visit with an Estate Planning attorney to have your situation reviewed. It may be appropriate to have your estate planning documents (e.g. Will, Power of Attorney, Trust, etc.) updated, if they listed your deceased spouse as having authority should you pass away or become incapacitated. You should also have the title of your house, investment accounts, and other assets reviewed to make sure they remain appropriate.

If your spouse had an IRA or other retirement account, don’t do anything just yet. There are some detailed rules with retirement accounts and surviving spouses and making the wrong move could cost you money in the long run. In addition to meeting with an attorney, sit down with a financial planner and review your entire financial situation to ensure you have the simplest set-up in a way that doesn’t cost you unnecessary dollars to get there.

Revise your financial plan with adjusted assets, income, and expenses

Regardless of your age at this phase of life, it pays to adjust your whole financial plan to reflect your new future. Take note of what assets you currently have and how they may have changed. Financially speaking, perhaps little changed as a result of your spouse dying – other than their pension or social security income – but it doesn’t hurt to review everything to be sure. Also seek to understand how your expenses will go down as well as how your income may be affected. By getting a clear picture of your new reality it will minimize the chance for surprises to come up in the future.