Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Losing a Loved One

10:28 AM

Not an appealing title

In order to add a little subtlety, I did not name this post "Death of a Spouse", but this is one of our post-retirement risks to plan for and manage: the risk of one spouse dying unexpectedly a few years into retirement.

We will look at ways to address this post-retirement challenge and prepare for the adverse financial consequences caused by the death of a spouse.


Life expectancy tables tell us that women live longer than men on average. Life expectancy at birth in Canada in 2009 was 78.8 years for men and 83.3 years for women. The gap between men and women has narrowed over time from 7.4 years in 1979 to just 4.5 years in 2009. However, for a couple, it is very hard to predict which spouse will live longer. For more on life expectancy, read this blog post.

There are two cases to plan for: you die first and your spouse dies before you. Thinking that that the typically older male will pass away before a younger female spouse may leave him in a precarious position if the other possibility actually happens and no planning around it took place.

You have to look at the consequences of the early death for each spouse. How will each surviving spouse do, considering the many years he or she may live?

Impact on budget

Estimate the impact of one spouse's death on your post-retirement budget. In many cases, total expenses may reduce by as much as 25%, considering that while many costs such as housing, property taxes and transportation remain unchanged, others such as health care and personal expenses may reduce by half.

If the surviving spouse's budget reduces significantly and combined assets remain untouched, then it will have a positive impact on financial security.

Determine which income sources will be lost or reduced (such as CPP) when each spouse dies, and how any shortfall can be met going forward if required.

Downsizing and relocating are always options to consider to keep living costs in line with what you can afford. Smaller dwellings are also less work and cost less to maintain. If this make sense for you, you can assume in your planning that there will be a change in housing to less expensive dwellings. This will free up funds to invest and use for future retirement income. 

If you make a budget, differentiate between essential and discretionary expenses. Ensure you have enough guaranteed income to meet your budget for essential expenses whether one or both of you are alive.


If you have a defined benefit pension plan, do not take a lump sum option when retiring or leaving your employment; only consider it if you are a long way from retirement. Select a "joint and last survivor" pension option at retirement. The lifetime income it will provide to your spouse is well worth the reduction applied to the pension.

The surviving spouse will become eligible to the deceased spouse's Canada Pension Plan survivor pension, which is 50% of the amount that was payable while alive. If you can afford to start the CPP (or a defined benefit pension) at a later age, the pension payable to you will be higher, and so will be the survivor pension.

Knowing the percentages of the initial pension payable to the survivor, you can assess if continuing income together with other available retirement funds are able to cover expenses for each surviving spouse.


If you are insurable, having the right amount of life insurance is essential to ensure that neither suffers a financial setback. You can set up a policy to pay the face amount on either, the first, or the last death.

Insurance will be useful to cover any shortfall that may occur from lost income or assets after the death of one spouse.

Wills and estate planning

Having a will is a must to smooth out and speed up the transition at this difficult time. It can also minimize income tax to ensure assets are transferred efficiently to the other spouse.


Consider purchasing a joint annuity with a portion of your retirement savings. A joint and last survivor annuity will provide a survivor income to your spouse on death.

Annuitizing is also an option to consider for funds in a defined contribution pension plan or group RRSP at retirement.

Maximize assets

Here are a few strategies to increase the likelihood of leaving more funds on the table to pay ongoing expenses for the remainder of the surviving spouse's life.

Work longer

Work as long as you can, even on a part-time or contractual basis to reduce the period of time you'll need to rely solely on retirement savings.

Spend conservatively

Spend conservatively during the first few years of retirement and minimize your withdrawals. If you earn poor returns, low withdrawals will not deplete your assets as much and you'll be left with more money for the rest of your lives.

Invest wisely

Get knowledgeable about investing or get a professional to do this for you to maximize your investment returns.

Your should take on just enough risk to earn a decent return, while staying comfortable with your investment strategy. Savings accounts and money market funds earn less than the rate of inflation. So you are essentially losing money with these ultra safe investments.

Following a death

You can search Google for "Service Canada Following a Death" and you will find a helpful page on the Service Canada Website that shows you want to do to obtain a death certificate, cancel pension and benefits, Old Age Security, the Canada Pension Plan and tax-related payments.

It also points you to benefits you may be eligible to receive, such as survivor and death benefits and provides information on important financial matters to consider.

[Here's the link: http://www.servicecanada.gc.ca/eng/lifeevents/loss.shtml, use Google as suggested above if it goes stale.]

If it happens...

Organize and gather personal records: birth and marriage certificates, certified copies of the death certificate. This will be required to establish ownership of the accounts and prove you are entitled to receive benefits.

Gather life insurance policies, investment account numbers, existing will, income tax and employee benefits information. Assess your financial situation by looking at total income and expenses, assets and liabilities, and insurance coverage.

File claims with insurance companies for individual life insurance policies, accidental death and dismemberment policies, travel, mortgage and credit life insurance policies.

Apply for the CPP death benefit of $2,500 and survivor pension. You also are eligible to transfer the balance in a RRSP or RRIF to your own account tax-free.

Make sure you have enough cash to meet your current expenses as well as funeral costs.
If you receive life insurance proceeds, use these funds to increase your cash reserves. Try to have at least six months' worth of living expenses in a bank account or money market fund.

You should put your name as the sole owner for real estate, vehicles and joint bank accounts.

Write a new will. Also look into a power of attorney for legal matters and health care in case you are unable to make your own decisions.

Probate is the legal process an estate goes through after a person's death. The process and requirements of probate differ for each province. Steps include confirming the legal status of the executor, notifying creditors and beneficiaries, settling the estate's debts and taxes, and finally transferring assets to beneficiaries and heirs.

Making a plan

Planning your retirement includes ongoing monitoring and making changes in light of changing circumstances.

As well, maintaining an updated retirement plan will make it easier to make the transition from a financial standpoint when it happens.


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