The death of a spouse can be one of the most devastating events in an individual’s life. Not only must surviving spouses cope with the emotional, mental and physical turmoil of their crushing grief, but they will also face a tsunami of legal and financial decisions, including the responsibility to pay their bills, keep the lights on, settle their spouses’ estates and protect their own financial futures. Rather than attempting to tackle these activities on their own and run the risk of making irreversible decisions that can cause irreparable damage, widows and widower should reach out to their professional financial advisors for help.
Thankfully, many of the items on a widow’s to-do list of required tasks do not have to be completed right away. In fact, it’s a good idea to put off making any major decisions until you are in the right state of mind to do so and have the benefit of your trusted advisor’s counsel.
Following is a list of the top-five things widows should consider, with the help of their financial advisors, sooner rather than later after a spouse passes away.
Widows may be entitled to receive deceased spouses’ retirement benefits as well as proceeds from any life insurance policies. However, it is critical to recognize that the strategy employed to claim those benefits has a broad range of legal, tax and financial implications.
For example, a surviving spouse may begin claiming Social Security survivor benefits beginning at age 60, but doing so would result in a significantly lower benefit than if they wait until they reach full retirement age of 66 or 67. Similarly, a widow has several options to consider when inheriting an IRA and 401(k) retirement plan from a deceased spouse, including rolling the inherited account into his or her own account and allowing those funds to continue to grow tax free. Or, depending on the widow’s age and the spouse’s age at death, there may be a requirement to withdraw a portion of those assets and pay taxes on those amounts.
Financial advisors can be a tremendous resource to help widows gain a clear understanding of their current financial picture by reviewing current and potential sources of savings, income and fixed living expenses. They can help develop a budget and implement tax-efficient strategies for improving immediate cash-flow needs and investing and repositioning investment portfolios for future growth. Moreover, a financial advisor can help survivors get their individual estate plans in order, helping to ensure their assets are properly structured and they have named agents to make important financial and legal decisions on their behalf, in the event they are no longer able to do so.
Tax basis determines whether a sale, exchange or other disposition of property will result in a gain or loss based on the difference between the original cost to acquire the property and fair market value (FMV) on the date of sale. In general, sales of highly appreciated assets will yield a profit that results in a taxable gain. However, U.S. tax laws allow inherited assets to receive a step-up in tax basis to the FMV on the date of the original owner’s death, thereby eliminating appreciation and taxes on any potential profits the original owner would have recognized from a sale. Therefore, surviving spouses can inherit highly valued assets and immediately sell them free of capital gains tax, or they may instead hold onto those assets and pay tax only on the appreciation that occurs after their spouse’s death.
Another tax benefit provided to widows is the ability to sell a primary home and exclude from taxation up to $250,000 of capital gain resulting from the sale when they file tax returns as a single individual. However, special care should be taken to time the sale of a primary residence in the year a spouse passes away so that the surviving spouse can receive the benefit of the a higher, $500,000 exclusion that comes with filing tax returns as a married couple filing jointly.
The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act passed at the end of 2019 eliminated the concept of “stretch IRA” distributions for non-spouse beneficiaries of decedents’ individual retirement accounts. Previously, these beneficiaries could stretch out withdrawals from inherited IRAs over the course of their lifetimes and receive the benefit of continued tax-deferred growth. This is no longer the case.
Effective Jan. 1, 2020, non-spouse beneficiaries must withdraw all assets from inherited IRAs within 10 years of the death of the original owners. Because this change in the law could drastically increase taxable income over the 10-year period and result in a substantial amount of plan assets going to the IRS, widows should consider alternative strategies to help reduce the later tax impact on their heirs.
When a spouse passes away, the surviving widow has the option to file a federal tax return for that year as a single individual or as a married couple that can receive the benefit of higher deductions, provided they do not remarry in the year of their spouse’s death.
In addition to filing a final tax return for decedents, surviving spouses may also have responsibilities to file both estate income tax returns to report any income above $600, as well as estate tax returns when the value of a decedent’s estate exceeds the federal estate tax exemption, which for 2020 is $11.58 million.
About the Author: Kathleen Marteney, CRPC®, is a financial planner with Provenance Wealth Advisors, an Independent Registered Investment Advisor affiliated with Berkowitz Pollack Brant Advisors + CPAs, and a registered representative with Raymond James Financial Services. She can be reached at 800-737-8804 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Provenance Wealth Advisors, 515 E. Las Olas Blvd., Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301 (954) 712-8888.
Kathleen Montgomery is a registered representative of and offers securities through Raymond James Financial Services, Inc., Member FINRA/SIPC.
Raymond James is not affiliated with and does not endorse the opinions or services of Berkowitz Pollack Brant Advisors + CPAs. PWA is not a registered broker/dealer and is independent of Raymond James Financial Services. Investment Advisory Services offered through Raymond James Financial Services Advisors, Inc., and Provenance Wealth Advisors.
This material is being provided for information purposes only and is not a complete description, nor is it a recommendation. Any opinions are those of PWA and not necessarily those of Raymond James. The information contained in this report has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but Raymond James does not guarantee that the foregoing material is accurate or complete. Investments mentioned may not be suitable for all investors. You should discuss any tax or legal matters with the appropriate professional. Prior to making an investment decision, please consult with your financial advisor about your individual situation.