It is always hard when a family member dies. But when they were also the breadwinner in the family, it is a double blow. On top of the emotional toll of the loss of a loved one, you are also faced with the urgent questions: how to manage without their income, how to claim benefits you are entitled to, and how to deal with day-to-day expenses while the estate is going through the probate process.
Whether the person who died was your spouse, your parent, or even your child, suddenly being without your main source of support can be terrifying. But there are some things you can do right away to make sure you are taken care of in the short term, so you have time to take stock and figure out what to do next.
Figure out what you have and what you need
The first thing to do is take a good look at your current finances. Do you have money in savings? Do you have sources of income, like a part-time job, severance from a former job, or alimony or child support from a former spouse? Maybe a friend or sibling owes you money?
You want to look at all potential sources of funds, then sit down and look at your expenses. If the money you currently have access to doesn’t meet your immediate financial obligations, it’s a good idea to reach out to the relevant people and businesses, such as your landlord, and let them know that your loved one has died and there may be a delay in payment while you secure other funding sources.
Keep in mind that you may also have to adjust your usual spending habits for the near future. You may not be in a mindset to cook for yourself, but it’s unwise, for example, to start ordering takeout for every meal when your finances are uncertain.
Even if you are not asking friends and family to pitch in financially, don’t be shy about requesting that they come over and cook or drop off a meal or two. It is very common to depend on others for meals for the first several days after a loved one dies, and most people will be more than happy to help.
Claim non-probate assets
If your loved one had property and assets, you may stand to inherit some or all of them, which can provide you with more of a financial cushion. However, for many categories of assets, you will not receive them until the conclusion of probate, the legal process of settling your loved one’s financial affairs.
This can take months or even years because the estate’s value will need to be assessed and its debts paid before any assets are transferred to beneficiaries.
Several types of assets can be accessed immediately, though. Called non-probate assets, they include: funds put in a trust for you, payable-on-death accounts and transfer-on-death property that name you as the beneficiary, any property that was owned jointly by the two of you with rights of survivorship, and property owned in common with a spouse in a community property state.
Most benefits do not need to go through probate, so they can also be accessed quickly.
Among these are any life insurance policy that names you as the beneficiary, other insurance benefits such as accidental death coverage, benefits from the Social Security Administration, and if your loved one was a military veteran, several kinds of potential benefits from Veterans Affairs.
There may also be benefits and other financial rewards you are eligible for through your loved one’s former employer: their unpaid wages, including unused sick and/or vacation days, bonuses, commissions, and pension, plus any retirement accounts that you were named beneficiary of. If your loved one was a member of a union, these often provide survivor benefits as well.
Request an allowance
Because probate can take a long time, most states provide you with the option to receive an allowance from the estate to tide you over in the meantime. This will, of course, reduce the amount of the inheritance that you and any other beneficiaries receive at the end of probate. On the other hand, the allowance is generally considered a priority expense of the estate, which means you are often able to receive it even if your loved one left behind considerable debts.
To receive the allowance, you will have to make a formal request in probate court, explaining why you need the allowance and what amount is necessary. Because the allowance is at the discretion of the court, it is a good idea to be careful not to ask for too much or too little. In some cases, the allowance will be a single payout, while in others it will be a certain amount per month, and dependent children can usually request their own allowance separate from a surviving spouse.
Aside from an allowance, a court will usually grant a spouse certain property rights, such as the right to continue living in a house or driving a car that are part of the estate. This may change, however, if these properties need to be sold as part of probate to pay off debts, or if others besides you inherit them at the end of probate. At least for the interim, however, this will guarantee you a place to live and transportation as you figure out how you will support yourself going forward.
You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.
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