Finances 101: What to Do When Your Spouse Receives a Terminal Diagnosis

Nothing rocks your world more than a terminal diagnosis, especially when it hits your life partner. 

It’s easy to panic when your spouse becomes ill – but it’s important to stay calm and create a plan of action to keep you focused. I know when I had cancer, my husband and I felt lost. A plan made it much easier to calm that fear and anxiety.

To help you get on track and keep your cool, we’ve put together seven actionable steps to help you organize your life, adjust your finances and establish a solid support system. 

7 Ways to Organize and Protect Your Finances After Your Spouse Receives a Terminal Diagnosis

A terminal diagnosis can turn your world – and your finances – upside down. With these seven steps, you can organize your money and calm the chaos. 

1. Identify your support system

The very first step to take after your spouse receives a terminal diagnosis is to identify and connect with your support system. 

Support comes in many forms. In addition to friends and family, we recommend doing a simple Google search of your spouse’s disease or illness. 

For example, if your spouse were diagnosed with breast cancer, a Google search would direct you toward the National Breast Cancer Foundation, which has a plethora of support options ranging from care packages to retreats and even virtual support groups. In just a few clicks, you have access to information and people in your corner who are knowledgeable about your spouse’s specific illness. 

In addition to online resources, it’s important to identify people nearby who can offer in-person support. That could be family members, friends, church communities, colleagues, a local support group or someone else entirely. 

Being a health advocate and caregiver for your ill spouse can be a lot to take on – but a proper support system can help ease that burden. 

2. Contact your financial advisor and attorney

Medical illnesses often come with many financial questions. It’s a good idea to connect with your financial advisor and let them know your situation, while also creating a financial plan that takes your new situation into account. 

You’ll want to know how much you can cover the cost of treatments and what costs you will need to account for beyond that. In some cases, the primary earner becomes ill, and the other spouse ends up returning to work. Meeting with your financial advisor can help you get your head around the extent of potential costs and what you can do to prepare.

Your advisor can also help you answer questions about things like Medicaid/Medicare, budgets, cost estimates, and so on.

3.Take stock of all your accounts

Too often, a spouse becomes ill or otherwise incapacitated, only for their partner to discover that they don’t have the login information they need for important accounts. 

Take some time to do an asset audit – write down all your accounts and make sure you have the proper information and/or contacts you need to access those accounts.

Your list should include:

  • Bank, retirement and investment accounts
  • Utility payment accounts
  • Entertainment subscriptions (such as Netflix and Hulu)
  • Contact information for your attorney or estate planning professional
  • Logins to household electronics
  • Keys or codes to any safety deposit boxes and safes

Set aside some time to go over your accounts with your spouse – they may have important login information you need, or even have accounts you weren’t aware of in the first place. 

4. Update your important documents

Most people name their spouse as their emergency contact or healthcare proxy. If they have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, it may be time to update those contacts and ensure you’re set in case of an emergency. 

You should also revisit your estate plan and make sure the beneficiaries are updated at this time. An estate plan includes your will and other documents that outline who inherits your assets, including bank accounts, property and other valuable items. 

And if you don’t have an estate plan in place already – now is a great time to get started! 

5. Find out whether you will qualify for widow’s benefits

Widow’s benefits, also called survivor’s benefits, may provide financial relief during your spouse’s treatment and after their passing. 

Survivor’s benefits can come from a variety of sources, including Social Security, military compensation and pension plans. The eligibility criteria and amount of benefits vary depending on the specific program and the circumstances of the spouse’s death.

6. Decide where you will live

After a terminal diagnosis, you may wish to live closer to family who can provide physical and emotional support during this time. Consider how long it would take to reach your family if an emergency were to occur.

Similarly, people often choose to move closer to family members after their spouse passes to help with grieving and adjusting to a new lifestyle. Even if you planned to stay put for the rest of your life, a big change like a terminal illness may make you rethink your living arrangements – and that’s okay. 

7. Beware of scams

A terminal diagnosis can leave you and your loved ones vulnerable to scams. You’re communicating with bill collectors, healthcare workers and so on – and it’s easy for scammers to get your information. 

To avoid becoming a scam victim, it’s important to keep your information secure. When in doubt, always do a double check who you’re talking to before proceeding. 

For example, never give out your private information (e.g., account numbers or Social Security numbers) over email. If someone calls you saying they need your private information – even if they say they’re from your bank – ask for their name and number and tell them you’ll call them back after you look into it. Then call your bank, tell them about the call you received and the person’s name and ask if it’s a legitimate request.

A good rule of thumb: If anyone tries to pressure you into giving them any information over phone or email, it is almost definitely a scam. Scammers want to create a sense of urgency so you won’t stop and think about their request. If they demand information from you right away, it’s most likely a scam. Don’t hesitate to hang up or ignore an email. If it’s real, they will follow up in other ways. 

Related: Watch Out for These Common Scams Targeting Widows 

Resources for Couples Facing a Terminal Diagnosis

You may also wish to start exploring local hospice options early on. If you’re located here in Corvallis, we recommend speaking with the team at Lumina Hospice & Palliative Care

Otherwise, there are several helpful websites that can help you explore your options, including:

Creating a plan for the future can help you keep your cool and make level-headed decisions for both you and your loved one. With these seven steps in place, you’ve tackled all the big decisions and can focus on what matters most. 

Plan Your Future with Clarity

A terminal illness is often unexpected and confusing. We can help keep your finances in order as you and your spouse navigate through these difficult times. Click here to connect with a member of our Clarity team today to get started.

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