Preparing for a loved one’s death

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Q. My wife has cancer and doesn’t have long to live. I know there are things I will need to do when she dies but I’m afraid I won’t have my head in the right place. What should I know now to make it easier later?

A. We’re sorry to hear about your wife, but we’re very glad you have the foresight to prepare for some tough times.

You should start preparing with some items before your wife dies.

First, make sure that she has a last will and testament, power of attorney — especially if she has assets in her name alone, such as an IRA or 401(k) — advance directive/living will, health care proxy and funeral instructions, said Shirley Whitenack, an estate planning attorney with Schenck, Price, Smith & King in Florham Park.

“The power of attorney and health care proxy will allow her agent to engage in financial transactions and make medical decisions for her if she is no longer able to do so herself because of her illness or the medications she is taking,” Whitenack said.

The advance directive will set forth written instructions about the types of treatment she wants and does not want when she is in the process of dying, Whitenack said.

Tax planning is also a big deal, Whitenack said.

If your wife already has a will, it should be reviewed to make sure that proper tax planning is incorporated and that the will accurately reflects her wishes as to the disposition of her assets.

Beneficiary designations on life insurance policies, IRAs, 401(k) plans and any other qualified plans also should be reviewed before your wife’s death to make sure that those designations reflect your wife’s current wishes and will not cause unnecessary tax problems, she said.

“If the value of the assets in your wife’s taxable estate, consisting of the interest in real estate including her home, life insurance policies that she owns, as well as her interest in bank accounts, stocks, bonds, and qualified savings plans exceed $675,000, you should have an estate planning attorney review her will to ensure proper tax planning,” Whitenack said.

You should make sure you know the location of your wife’s original will because that will be needed to probate her estate, Whitenack said.

If your wife does not have these documents in place, you should consult with an estate planning attorney as soon as possible to have these documents drawn up.

Whitenack also offered a look at what happens after your wife’s death,

You will have to submit the original will to the county surrogate’s office for probate, Whitenack said.

“Under New Jersey law, a will cannot be probated until 10 days after death,” Whitenack said. “A duplicate original of her death certificate will need to be brought to the surrogate’s office together with the original will.”

If the original will cannot be located but there is a copy of the will, a complaint and order to show cause will have to be filed in the New Jersey Superior Court to request the admission to probate of a “lost” will because the surrogate cannot probate a copy of a will, she said.

Financial institutions generally will freeze half of the assets owned by the decedent prior to death unless an affidavit is submitted stating that the total value of her assets at the time of death were less than $675,000, Whitenack said.

And because financial institutions and insurance companies also will request duplicate originals of death certificates, you should request extra duplicate originals from the funeral home, which generally obtains the death certificates.

“The funeral home also generally notifies the Social Security Administration of the death,” she said, noting that if funeral arrangements have not yet been made, you may want to do that before your wife’s death.

We wish you both the best during this difficult time.
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This story was first posted in September 2015. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.