Monday, July 27, 2020


I spend several mornings each week dealing with the many loose ends following the death of my spouse.  I know that much of what I am dealing with is due to the fact that many things were managed by my husband and left in disarray (because his death was completely unexpected) and others that I was not privy to due to his business and his desire to "shield me" from the reality of our financial situation.
In any case, if it is helpful at all for recently widowed women who find this post, I am going to set out a few things I have learned.

1.  Everyone says you need a lot of certified death certificates.  Frequently mentioned is to get at least a dozen of them.  Because of my husband's business - I got about 20 of them. Turns out this is one of the few areas where modern technology has changed the rules.  Many places were just fine with a scanned and emailed copy.  Some copied the original I brought in person and gave it back.  In fact, many requested that the Social Security number be blocked out for liability and privacy concerns.

I suggest starting with half a dozen and then order more if needed.  As they cost about $23.00  per copy - it makes no sense to have any extras sitting in a file - like I have.

2.   My husband was self employed.  I worked so we had healthcare benefits.  I didn't make a lot of money, but enough that it had an effect come tax time.  We changed my  401k  contribution to try to ease that - so 40% of my pay went into that account pre-tax.  Since here was a matching element - it grew fairly fast.  He asked me to take a large distribution shortly before he died.

The distribution he had me take was intended to go into a new retirement account he had opened -  a SEP IRA.  He made an issue of letting me know how I could access the account - however, either he didn't know or didn't consider the consequences if he died and we did not go through probate.  Under those conditions, I have no claim or access to the funds - at least per Vanguard Brokerage Services.  There is only a few hundred dollars in the account that they won't pay out to me for whatever arcane rules they get to hide behind.  (Unless I spend more money than is in the account to provide legal documents that satisfy "the rules".)

So the large sum I had just taken out of my 401k to be deposited into that account remained in my hands because he became ill before the transfer could be made.  The sole saving grace I managed out of the mess of finances I inherited.

The lesson?  Learn more about the various kinds of accounts there are and question the rules around them.  I did that when he became eligible for his pension.  He had planned to defer it until he was 70 because the value was so much higher.  I questioned what the rules were if something should happen to him before that milestone - and we learned I would end up with a tiny fraction of the amount as his widow.  We changed the option and he began taking the pension at 65.  Thank goodness I questioned it - wish I had done the same on the SEP IRA!!

3.  Credit cards - sigh.  

In the weeks following his death, each creditor received a phone call requesting the cancellation of the account and any auto payments.  That was followed by a notification letter and a death certificate.  AmEx kept calling and sending letters seeking probate information - we did not go through probate.

Apparently, even though I didn't sign anything, receive or use a card, a couple of the accounts somehow have my name attached to them.  The law is pretty vague on this especially in community property states. 

I would not be liable for the accounts he opened specifically for his business.  He was a solo practitioner and never filed as a corporation - so the accounts can be considered personal.  The credit companies can come after me to pay that debt.  How hard they will come at me remains to be seen.  I was advised to give out no information to anyone who contacts me from the companies or from third party entities.  I no longer answer calls from unknown numbers.

The good news as of now -  the companies he had personal loans with have not come to me for payment.  They seem to be less aggressive about repayment.

I did hear from the bank for my personal credit cards that they are reducing my credit limits by half.  The credit reporting companies are definitely tagging me with his outstanding debts.  I realize it is early days and this is probably far from over, I keep my personal cards and auto loans paid up and hope eventually my credit rating will improve.

4.  With the pandemic, the IRS is backed up.  It does appear that the very expensive tax attorneys I hired are working some magic on the issues of back taxes, payment plans, liens, etc.  Should know soon.  The State of California - not so much - they want payment in full and it is a doozy - wouldn't you know he had a very good income last year.  They are giving me five years to pay off the 2019 taxes.

5.   Bottom line - if you are facing big tax and credit issues - I would advise that the expense of hiring professional help is worth it.  Not those credit fix companies!!  Law Firms or  CPA firms which specialize in these issues.  Call and talk to multiple people until you feel a good fit and communication style.  I had some pretty insulting and negative conversations until I found the great people I am working with.

6.  Remember that this will all settle out.  It may take time and more money that you don't really have to spend to help resolve it - but it will be resolved over time.  This is one area I think it is best to let time pass before making any decisions. The pressure is enormous to just make it go away - resist that urge and take your time.  

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