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Finances After the Unexpected: Divorce, Remarriage and Death

You’re on the road to financial independence. You’ve paid off your consumer debt. You’ve got money in an emergency fund. You’re putting money away in your 401(k). You’re set.

And then life happens.

If you're facing a tragic loss or a difficult transition—like a divorce or loss of a spouse—let us first say that we're sorry. We hate what you're going through. One hopeful piece of the puzzle, though, is that those curve balls don’t have to derail your quest for financial independence. If you're celebrating a new marriage, congratulations! And keep in mind that you'll need to create some new financial rhythms together. With a few smart steps, you’ll be back on familiar ground in no time.

How to Handle Financial Accounts in Divorce

Figuring out your finances after divorce can feel overwhelming, but take a deep breath. You can do this. Here are a few steps you need to take:

  1. Close joint credit accounts. We know this sounds harsh, but even in non-contested divorces, emotions can run high and the situation can change quickly. In a fit of anger or frustration, your spouse could rack up a huge bill that you’d be partly responsible for. Better safe than sorry.
  2. Get a credit report. People do off-the-wall stuff when they’re hurting. Some even take out a credit card (or several cards) without their partner knowing. Getting a credit report will give you a clear financial picture. You need to know the complete story so you can make informed, intelligent decisions when you and your spouse divide up your assets.
  3. Know your options with retirement accounts. You could be eligible for part of the money in your spouse’s 401(k), pension and Social Security benefits. And if your spouse has significantly more (or all) of the retirement savings in their name, you can file a legal document to petition for some of that money. Also, remember that money in a traditional IRA or 401(k) isn’t the same as money in a Roth account. Money in a Roth account has already been taxed and it grows tax-free. When dividing those accounts, keep that difference in mind.
  4. Be smart about the house. Your house probably has huge sentimental value, but taking it as a part of a divorce deal may not be the best financial move for you. Even if the house is paid off, you still have to deal with taxes, repairs, utilities and upkeep. A better option may be selling the house and dividing up the money. Then you could use the money to clear up any debt, fill up your emergency fund, or just get yourself on more solid financial footing.

We know divorce is life-altering, so think about this phase of life as an opportunity to build something new. Create a new budget, prioritize the important stuff (like food, shelter, etc.), and work toward solid financial ground. You can do this. Things won’t feel overwhelming forever.

How to Handle Financial Accounts in Remarriage

Congratulations! This is an exciting time as you and your new spouse work to build a life together. Don’t let your financial accounts suffer in the process. Here are some things you need to consider when you’re remarrying—especially if you’re tying the knot during the golden years.

  1. Talk about finances before the big day. An alarming number of couples don’t talk about what to do with their finances when they marry. When you’re talking about a wedding date, you should be talking about your financial situations as well. This is especially true if this is the second marriage for either of you. You need to decide if both spouses will support children from a previous marriage. The same goes for caring for aging parents. You also need to talk about assets from previous marriages. Because a second marriage can mean huge financial complications, we highly recommend talking with a financial advisor about the best next steps to take and when to take them.
  2. Talk to your family. For many children, the idea of their parent remarrying can create conflicting emotions, even with grown kids. Your kids are protective. They want to know that you’re making smart financial decisions so that you’re not left penniless in retirement. Ease their fears by letting them know you’ve been talking through these issues. If you feel comfortable, explain how you and your future spouse plan to handle money. You might even want to ask their input.
  3. Change your beneficiaries. With the excitement of a new partner in life, it’s easy to forget about adding your new spouse and dropping the ex. In legal documents like your will, your 401(k) and your life insurance policy, the money will go to the person listed, even if you’ve been divorced for decades. Set aside some time on your calendar to tackle this task as soon as you sign that marriage license. Put a notification on your phone if necessary. This is too important to let slip through the cracks.
  4. Consider a prenuptial agreement. Now, before you call us unromantic or heartless, hear us out. A prenup can be useful when you have assets, like family land, that you want passed down to children from a prior marriage. Unless your new spouse waives their right to those (through a prenuptial agreement), they may claim some or all of your estate when you die.

Now, if you want to provide for your spouse while they’re alive but want to preserve assets for your kids, you can create a Qualified Terminal Interest Property Trust (QTIP trust). Your spouse would have access to your assets (like the house) during their lifetime, but those assets would go to the children when the spouse dies.

How to Handle Financial Accounts After a Spouse’s Death

We won’t lie to you—dealing with finances after the death of a spouse is hard. The financial accounts may not be overly complicated, but your heart and mind have been through the wringer. In your grief, every decision feels overwhelming, and that’s normal. Give yourself a little time to catch your breath. Then tackle the following tasks:

  1. Create a legacy box. This is a box or file containing the paperwork, account numbers, information, IDs and passwords for all your financial accounts—savings, checking, 401(k), IRAs, the whole shebang. You also need to include your will and other legal documents like birth certificate, Social Security card, car titles and marriage license. Gather and store these in a safe location, like a safe or safety deposit box. Hopefully you had one of these before your spouse’s death, but if not, it’s imperative that you make one now going forward for your loved ones. Obviously, this needs to be done before disaster strikes. And working on this as a team ensures that you’re both in the know. The last thing you want (or your spouse wants) is to gather everything together in the midst of grief.
  2. Get multiple copies of the death certificate. Yes, this sounds morbid, but it’s important and will save you from a huge headache. When you make arrangements with a funeral home or cremation facility, they will ask you how many copies of the death certificate you would like. Ask for at least 10–20 certified copies. That’s because when you complete other tasks, like filing for life insurance benefits, you’ll have to provide a death certificate before a bank or firm will release funds or transfer ownership to you.
  3. Pay the bills. It’s easy to let this monthly task slip through the cracks because you don’t have the mental or emotional energy to think about it. However, you could get hit with huge late charges and penalties. Don’t let a time of grieving worsen by adding unnecessary financial complications and stress. If this should happen, though, ask for leniency due to the situation. Some companies will show some compassion. Some won’t. Put reminders on your phone that show when the bills are due. That will help with mental lapses. If you feel overwhelmed, get someone close to you to help you stay on track.
  4. Cancel premiums and subscriptions. Contact the providers of your spouse’s health, life, and car insurance to drop them from your coverage. Also contact Medicare if necessary. Also cancel subscriptions—gym, magazines, streaming services, music, etc. If any of these are paid yearly, explain the reason and ask for any refunds due to you. You may be asked for a death certificate in some of these instances.
  5. Don’t do anything—with regard to big financial decisions, anyway. We recommend that you wait six months before you take a huge financial leap, like selling your house or selling off stock or making big purchases (like a new house). The period following your loved one’s death is the worst time to make major decisions.
  6. Meet with a financial advisor. These pros will know what to do with any workplace retirement plans that were in your spouse’s name. They can help you file insurance claims and transfer ownership of financial accounts. And they can help you assess your money situation and figure out the steps you need to make so you can retire with dignity and security. Even if you’re a numbers person, having an outside perspective will be crucial at a time when your brain won’t be running on all cylinders.

The best thing you can do for your spouse—and yourself—is to talk about financial accounts on a regular basis while you’re both healthy and there’s no stress on the relationship. You need to stay informed and aware of what’s in the accounts and what to do should an emergency arise. You’ll face financial curve balls, but you can handle them like a pro by knowing what to do when they get thrown your way.

Face the Unexpected With Help

When the unexpected happens, get extra help with a SmartVestor Pro. They can assist you in assessing your financial situation, and create a plan going forward.

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Market chaos, inflation, your future—work with a pro to navigate this stuff.

Find a Pro Today

This article provides general guidelines about investing topics. Your situation may be unique. To discuss a plan for your situation, connect with a SmartVestor Pro. Ramsey Solutions is a paid, non-client promoter of participating Pros. 

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Ramsey Solutions has been committed to helping people regain control of their money, build wealth, grow their leadership skills, and enhance their lives through personal development since 1992. Millions of people have used our financial advice through 22 books (including 12 national bestsellers) published by Ramsey Press, as well as two syndicated radio shows and 10 podcasts, which have over 17 million weekly listeners. Learn More.

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