We’ve all heard about the importance of reviewing and possibly updating important legal documents after major life events like getting married, getting divorced, and having a child. But many people overlook the importance of reviewing their own documents and estate plans after the death of a spouse.
In addition to having to cope with the grief, a surviving spouse is often heavily involved in administering or overseeing his or her mate’s estate. Often, this means that the surviving spouse’s own legal matters are, at least temporarily, put on the back burner.
It is crucial, however, that the surviving spouse’s estate planning be handled in as timely a manner as possible.
Making sure that all the documents have been reviewed and updated appropriately will not only ensure that everything is in order to address the eventual passing of the surviving spouse, but—as important—to ensure that the surviving spouse is protected for the remainder of his or her life.
To help anyone in this position navigate the process more easily, here is a brief checklist of documents that a surviving spouse should review as soon as possible with a Connecticut estate planning attorney after the loss of a spouse.
A durable power of attorney enables you to name someone to act on your behalf in financial matters if you are unable to do so yourself due to disability or lack of capacity. In most cases, spouses will name each other as the “agent” or “attorney in fact,” so—in the event of one spouse’s death—the surviving spouse needs to name another trusted person to take on this responsibility. In addition, the surviving spouse should address with the attorney when power of attorney may be invoked, at any time or only in cases of incapacitation. If this document is not updated and the surviving spouse is suddenly unable to sign documents, the situation will require a court appearance that can not only be costly, but also time consuming.
Sometimes called a medical power of attorney or an healthcare proxy, this document allows the named health care agent to step in when you are unable to communicate about healthcare decisions on your own. Most people name their spouse as primary agent and then name another family member or close friend as the alternate agent. Upon the death of the primary agent, the alternate agent automatically takes up the responsibility granted by the healthcare proxy, but the surviving spouse still needs to name a new alternate agent. In addition, it’s wise to review whether the person who was originally the alternate agent is an appropriate choice to become the primary agent. Once all the designations have been made, the surviving spouse needs to provide copies of the updated document to anyone who needs to have it on file, such as hospitals and physicians.
HIPAA Release Forms
Because of the strict laws about privacy around healthcare records, a HIPAA release form is required if someone wants to access another person’s medical records before a healthcare proxy has been invoked. Usually, this release form is created so that a family member or friend can speak to the surviving spouse’s doctors and access important medical information even while the surviving spouse is still capable of making personal health decisions. It’s mostly a matter of convenience.
Wills and Trusts
While most of the focus after the loss of a spouse it typically on the deceased’s Will and trust, it’s also important at this time to review the surviving spouse’s estate plan. In addition to simply reviewing the documents to make sure they are up to date and any changes related to the death of the spouse are addressed, there are other special cases that might come into play. For instance, the surviving spouse may have the option to disclaim some part of his or her inheritance in order to direct more funds or property to children. These are more complicated matters, but certainly worth investigating with the help of an attorney if the situation calls for it.
Finally, there are a number of beneficiary designation forms that may need updating, such as for life insurance, retirement plans, and brokerage and bank accounts. Whether these accounts are already in the surviving spouse’s name (with the decedent as the beneficiary), or are accounts that the surviving spouse inherited from the decedent, they all need to be reviewed and updated with primary and alternate beneficiaries.
Each case is unique and there may be additional documents that need to be addressed, but this brief list provides a solid starting point that we hope will make it easier for a surviving spouse to make sure that everything is taken care of during a difficult time. These may not be pleasant tasks, but they will ultimately provide an invaluable peace of mind.