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Sally Hurme (Part 3 of 3)

Episode 53: What Baby Boomers Need to Know About Survivor Planning, with Sally Hurme (Part 3 of 3)

Sally Balch Hurme is an estate planning elder law attorney and an author of six books. She worked on Capitol Hill for six years, and she realized that it became apparent that a woman needed an advanced degree. She took the LSATs right after a congressman recommended that she learn shorthand and then recommended that the male staffer go to law school. She went to law school in the ‘70s when there were very few women students or professors. She started a practice in Alexandria, Virginia, when there were very few women attorneys. When she decided to start a family, she withdrew from the partnership. She cobbled together part-time positions for a couple of years, so not to have a gap in her resume. Networking brought in opportunities but she never really applied for a position. One position led to another, including 23 years at AARP, eight years teaching elder law as an adjunct professor, and six books. 

This is the third of three podcasts with Sally. Listen to part 1 and part 2.

Welcome Sally.

I’m delighted to be back with you, Lynn.

Thanks! And this is round three, so let’s just jump right in here. I want to talk about some of the things that we never talk about as a culture, as a society. These are the kinds of things that people generally learn by default, because when things happen, the death of a spouse, all of a sudden we’re thrust into a new world. And if we haven’t done the planning ahead of time, it is absolutely the worst time to try to learn all of this and make decisions when your mind is so otherwise occupied and distraught. So your books are designed around this topic to try to help people with a checklist, and say, “These are the things you have to think about, the things you have to know, and those things that you have to do in the course of the moment of death, the day of death, and all the way through to, let’s say, towards the end of the first or second year,” before your life gets stabilized again, if that is the case. So, let’s start with the very first part of it, which would be you’ve just been notified that your spouse has passed. What do you do? 

Well, on top of all of the grief and the shock, no matter how well-prepared you may have been for your spouse’s declining health, there still are so many decisions that have to be made. And these decisions have to be made at the most difficult and trying time. So, one of the things that I try to do in my checklist is walk through all of the decisions that are going to have to be made, and perhaps one of the very first things that you have to pay attention to are going to be the care of your spouse. From the moment of death, perhaps the first decision that has to be made, they’re all about what are you going to do with the body, and how are you going to respect your loved one’s wishes? Perhaps the very first decision that may need to be made is whether your loved one wished to be an organ donor. Lots of states have the option that you can indicate that wish, let’s say, on your driver’s license. But also, you need to determine if they had previously made plans to donate their body for medical research, or whether it would be appropriate for an autopsy to be performed. Now, if there was some question as to the nature of the death from, let’s say, unnatural causes, then the coroner would be the one who would make the recommendation that there be an autopsy. But also for medical reasons, it may be significant to the family and to the individual who has died for there to be perhaps some research of…Lynn, as you and I both know, our spouses have specific medical conditions that may be appropriate for a brain autopsy. I know this is one of the things that my husband and I have been talking about, to further medical science as to just what happens to the brain when they become diseased, and why, to promote medical research in the future to help others who are suffering from all of the various kinds of medical issues. But this is not a decision that you can make on a, you know, snap judgment. It must be carefully thought out, particularly in a conversation with your spouse ahead of time, if there are any of those opportunities.

I was just going to say, there’s the critical part, I think. Both of us are dealing with some forms of dementia with our spouses, and at some point, the spouse really isn’t in a position to make that decision. So it’s kind of, you know, well if you catch them ahead of time, before this happens, before the diagnosis, maybe you can have a rational conversation about this. But there are times when maybe, as I can see in my own situation, my husband is really fundamentally in denial of there being any problem here. So for me to have a conversation with him about this would be of no value, because he just is not willing to accept that this is a condition that he has. Whereas I feel very strongly that I think, for the reasons that you just mentioned, people who have dementia and all forms of it including Alzheimer’s, that it’s really important, for the furthering of medical research on these diseases, that some kind of autopsy is done, just to see what’s been going on in the brain, that they can’t see with any current technology. So I look at that and say yes, I agree with you, that that’s something that would be nice to have had that conversation ahead of time, but I think that ultimately that it’s the surviving spouse or child, if there is no surviving spouse, who has to make that decision for the betterment of the world, I guess. So, you know, I agree with you that that is something that you can discuss, so that’s assuming you have the opportunity to do that. But as you said, there are times when there may be something that a family member is going to say, “I don’t know if that medical advice that was given was necessarily the right advice, and perhaps, there was something that was missed by surgeons” or whatever it was. Or, you’ve heard of those cases where people have died because they found a sponge or something that got infected from a surgery. You know, things like that where there is some suspicion on the part of the family that there may be something that would be helpful to know, then that is another instance. And of course, you said, if it’s any kind of unnatural death with any kind of criminal activity, of course that has to be done. But let’s just assume that you and I are talking about situations where there is none of that, there’s no question about anything having to do with their past or whatever it was. So, now you reach a point where you say “Okay, an autopsy needs to be done.” But from the time you make that decision, how long does it take to get the autopsy done, and then what happens to the body in the meantime, and the plans you may have had to make for either burial or cremation?

Well that’s really going to depend on the circumstances of the death, as well as the location, like if the death occurred in a hospital that, let’s say, is a large research hospital. Then those decisions and the autopsy can be done just, relatively rapidly. As well as, even if we’re not talking about autopsy but let’s say, organ donation, most hospitals have staff who are assigned as the point person, let’s put it that way, to consult with the family and to make the necessary arrangements for what they call the hardest thing, the organs. That sounds pretty gruesome, but that’s really what they’re talking about. Because obviously, the organs, whether it’s an eye or a lens or tissue or a kidney or a liver or a lung or whatever, that procedure needs to be happen just as quickly as the surgical team can be put together and those arrangements can be made. But this is the decision that has to be made very quickly, it’s an action that has to be taken very promptly for the, let’s say, the transplant procedure to be successful. So it’s going to happen lightning-fast, or it really is not going to be successful.

What about a religious overlay on this? That sometimes, you know, the person who is the spouse may feel very strongly that they want the organs of their loved one to be harvested for the benefit of other human beings, but yet, there’s some kind of a religious piece to this that says “You can’t do that” or “You shouldn’t do that.” How do you deal with that? 

Well…very carefully, perhaps with consultation with your spiritual advisor. The key thing really is yes, it is your decision but it’s really what would your spouse do? Even if you haven’t had that conversation, what do you know from that individual’s faith background, and I know that particularly within the Jewish community, this is just not really acceptable. So even though you may think this is what should happen, you need to be carrying out the wishes and respecting the values of your spouse. It’s not you, it’s them. And beyond just these issues, we do need to keep in mind that even if it’s not an organ donation or an autopsy or a full-body donation, you also have to make a decision as to what are you going to do with the body. Does the individual wish to be cremated? Have they made that decision ahead of time? Have you had that conversation ahead of time? Do you know what they would want? And even if that may not be your choice, for what you want, it’s imperative that you follow through with the wishes of that individual. For example, I know that my husband for a long time has indicated that he wishes to be cremated. And I even have the list of the places where he wishes to have his ashes scattered. And this is a conversation fortunately that we’ve had many years ago, before there were any really medical issues. I, on the other hand, have been reluctant to make that decision. I finally have, but I know that it is imperative that I follow through with my husband’s wishes and will direct that he be cremated. But beyond cremation, then, there are other choices as to what happens to the body. Is it to be taken to a funeral home? Do you know which funeral home that would be? Will the individual be embalmed or not? There are, again, certain religious practices that do not think that embalming is appropriate and that the body should be buried just as soon as possible without embalming. Then, a choice has to be made as to what happens to the cremains, or if there’s not to be cremation, then what kind of memorial service or funeral service would there be? A memorial service is typically what we call the service that happens when the body is not present. For example, when the individual has been cremated. If the body is to be preserved, what kind of casket are you going to use? You can even buy caskets now online.

Oh my gosh. All righty.

Okay, so then, what kind of service are you going to have? Where is it going to be? Is it going to be at the gravesite? Is it going to be at a house of worship? Is it going to be at a funeral home? Who’s going to participate? What readings will there be? Who will speak? Will there be any performers? Do you wish to have, let’s say, a photo array showing the life of your spouse? Who is going to prepare, who’s going to dig out the photos from the photo albums and pick the ones that are going to be used? What other kind of tribute will there be? Someone needs to prepare the obituary, somebody needs to proof it to make sure that it’s accurate and the survivors’ names have been spelled correctly and the right grandkids have been put with the right children. And other decisions that need to be made around this would include if there is going to be any request for memorial contributions, perhaps in lieu of flower arrangements. What charities or institutions or care providers or whatever it might be would be appropriate that are so important to that individual. That memorial contribution might go to the university that they graduated from, the association associated with the disease, or whatever, but that decision has to be made so that that can be appropriately aligned with the wishes of the individual.

Before you go on any farther, let me ask a question here. I know you’re talking about these items that you have to go through. Your book is a checklist of this kind of thing, correct? 


What’s the name of the book? 

Checklist for Family Survivors.

There we are! Where can one purchase that? 

You can get it on Amazon, or you can purchase it from your local bookstores, I know they’re in Barnes & Noble and in other bookstores.

Okay. Checklist for Family Survivors, I like that. 

And then we got some financial issues around the funeral, since we really want to focus a bit on some of those financial issues. And this raises the question as to whether the individual has made any, what we call, pre-need plans. And that would be speaking with a funeral home, a funeral director, and individuals ahead of time can pick out their casket, and all of the various other services that go along, transportation of the body, transportation of the body to the cemetery, and can indicate, you know, the kind of service they want, where they want it, who they want to officiate and so forth. All of these can be planned in advance with a funeral home, and they also can be paid for in advance. We call this a pre-need contract. It’s very important for the family to know whether the individual has a pre-need contract, and what they have selected, what they have pre-paid, because obviously you’ve got to know whether there is a pre-need contract, so that you don’t incur expenses that have already been paid for.

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There are a variety of legal issues around pre-need contracts that I think are important to point out. Some of the issues around them are the safety and security of the money that has been paid out. Is that money secure? There have been in the past some very unfortunate circumstances where the funeral home did not adequately conserve that money and the money that has been paid is no longer available. You want, in entering into a pre-need contract, it’s very important to know where and how the money is going to be put into a trust, or some form of an insurance policy. My personal recommendation is to do the pre-need planning, so that the individual’s wishes can sort of be scheduled out, but it’s not essential to prepay. I think that a wiser thing to do is to set aside the money yourself into, let’s say, a pay-on-death account that is specifically designated to cover funeral expenses, or there can be CDs or some sort of savings account with a bank that you have created in advance where that money is. I like to be in control of the money, and if I’ve put it, let’s say, in a funeral trust or a burial trust or a pay-on-death account, I still have control over that money. One other just issue about pre-need contracts, there are issues about the portability of that contract. Let’s say you establish a pre-need contract with a funeral home in Minnesota, and then you decide to retire to Florida. Will that pre-need contract be honored or recognized or portable if you, you know, move to Florida? Your contract is in Minnesota, maybe you want go back to Minnesota for your funeral and burial, that’s fine, but if you then decide “Well, maybe now that I’ve retired to Florida or Arizona or whatever, I’m going to buried down here and have my funeral down here.” Will that contract be portable? So that’s something that is important to keep in mind at the time you enter into a contract.

When you’re talking about that in particular, I wanted to ask a question before I lose this train of thought. When you talk about setting money aside, in a payable-on-death account, let’s say that at the time the planning is being done, the funeral director shares this information with the two of you and says “I see that this will cost ten thousand dollars.” You get it, okay. So you create this little checking account at the local bank or you buy a CD for the equivalent of it, and then death doesn’t occur until maybe ten years later. And as it turns out, the decision is that “I don’t really think I want to be buried anymore, I’d like to be cremated.” So, you’ve got this money set aside for the purpose of honoring this prior commitment, but now there’s nothing that says legally, or is there, that you have to use that money to pay for burial when that’s not what the individual wants.

Okay, well if you are in control of the money, the CD, the savings account, the insurance policy, the pay-on-death accounts, you’re in control, so you can change your mind at the last minute as to how much money is to be spent and where it’s going to be spent and what it’s going to be spent for. If you have a pre-need contract with funeral home X for this casket, these services, this transportation, the embalming, the preparation of the body, at this funeral home, you don’t have the control over that money, depending on what the terms of the contract are, because you’ve prepaid for these services at this location.

Okay, so that’s what I think is the question I have. The pre-need contract is, by definition, one that’s already paid for, correct? 


So even if you met with a funeral director, and you had a conversation about “These are the things I choose now,” if you haven’t paid for it at the time of that conversation, or thereabouts, then you are not legally obligated to have to go back to that funeral director when the person dies and say “Okay, we have to do this, because we had this conversation.” In other words, there’s no legal obligation to having a conversation about setting up things a certain way, but if you’ve signed a pre-need contract, money has been exchanged. 

Yes, you’ve paid in advance for services you want in the future, and you’ve signed a contract.

And in the future, if it costs more then that’s too bad, right? Because you and the funeral director made a commitment for ten thousand dollars, and it turns out to be $12,500.

That’s the benefit.

So is that a type of agreement? That’s what I thought. 

Well, that’s the benefit. That’s the benefit of the contract, in that you buy today’s services at today’s price and the funeral home must recognize that contract. And so, even if the services ten years from now cost, you know, fifteen thousand, you’ve paid for it at ten thousand and have saved your family that money for the same services.

Okay, all right, well let’s say we’ve gotten past that part, and either buried the guy or cremated him. All right, what’s next? What are the other things now we have to think about? 

Oh, there’s so many. But I think perhaps the next thing that you want to do, and I do have in my checklist, and I’m going to pull out my book, all the decisions that you’re probably going to have to make in the first week. But…let’s move on to, I don’t know which avenue you want to go next, we could talk about finances I think, that probably is where we need to go. Some of the things that you’re going to want to do is at the bank, you need to notify the bank of the death of the individual. Now, if you have a joint account with your spouse, which is probably fairly likely, the bank may temporarily freeze the account. It depends on what the bank’s policy is, and it varies from bank to bank. If there is an account that is solely in the name of the spouse, those funds will be frozen temporarily. And that really is for the individual’s safety, so that no one tries to raid the account before probate or the estate can be settled. But a joint account, which obviously as a spouse you’re still going to need money for groceries, for your day-to-day expenses, utility bills, the mortgage, all of those things are still going to have to be paid. One other financial point to keep in mind is that the last Social Security check cannot be retained. It has to be returned. So if you have, of course almost everybody now does not get a paper check, it’s direct deposited into a bank account, but the bank, once they’re notified, will, should, should, should, may not but should be aware of the fact that the next Social Security direct deposit, whatever, if it comes in during the month of the death, that check must be returned to Social Security. The reason for this basically is perverse, you’re paid your Social Security checks for the month in advance and if you don’t live that month, you’re not entitled to that Social Security benefit.

Okay, so other financial issues that you’re going to want to attend to, other than your daily bank account, is you’re obviously going to have to notify the, let’s say, your financial advisor or your investment company. You’re going to have to notify whoever is paying a pension, or whoever is managing the 401k, they need to know about the death for multiple reasons. One, for security for the account, that no one raids it, but also to be able to determine the value of the account on the day of the death for taxation purposes. You’re also going to want to notify any life insurance company of the death, obviously, to be able to obtain the proceeds from that life insurance policy. Many companies want the original copy of the original of the life insurance policy, so you may have to dig around to find where that policy is. Hopefully you know in advance. The insurance company will have specific procedures and forms that will need to be filled out. You’re going to have to provide a copy of the death certificate and possibly copies of marriage licenses, birth certificates, to, you know, identify the beneficiaries as the persons who are entitled to the proceeds from the life insurance policy. Planning in advance, it’s always a very good idea to review the beneficiaries of any life insurance policy or of your 401k or your pension, etcetera, however you have designated those beneficiaries you want to be sure you keep your beneficiaries up-to-date, so you’re not creating a horrible confusion.

And delay.

And delay, and delay, and delay if those beneficiaries are not up-to-date.

I’m going to also throw something in here too about something you just mentioned about the life insurance policies, they want the originals. I know that in a lot of cases, people don’t even know that they have some insurance because it’s been paid up for such a long time, that they don’t even know where the policy is. But the thing that is important is if you have some idea, and you can’t find a policy, there is such a thing as a lost policy form, which you can fill out and have it notarized, and then it’s fine. Because then if the policy ever shows up at some point in time, with this piece of paper already in their files, they know that the claim has already been paid. So it’s just a way of having people say “I don’t, oh my gosh, I don’t have, stress right now, I can’t find the policies.” If it’s been a reasonable search and you can’t find them, it’s okay to call the insurance company and say, “I can’t find the policy.” They will find it by its number and then say “We’ll send you a lost policy form.” Again, as we just said, delay is this thing that really causes the problem here because that money could make a difference between being able to sustain a standard of living, pay mortgages, do all that kind of stuff. So the sooner you get to that, and as you said, we’re talking about the first week or two following death. These are the things you got to get together and honestly, if you can’t do it and you’re not in a mental space to do it, you need to find someone who can do it for you. And that could be an attorney who’s handling the estate, it could be a CPA, it could be a trusted advisor, really, a family member who might know what they’re doing, I don’t know, but you know, someone’s who’s got the skills to be able to handle this for you, because it’s just such a hard time, as we mentioned. Such a hard time to cut through the grief and the stress of all of this. All of a sudden you have to become financially literate. Chances are, you’re not, and this is the worst time to find out. 

Right. And it’s so hard just to learn the vocabulary if you’re not familiar with it. Another area where you want to act rather promptly is with Social Security. I mentioned that you have to return the last Social Security check, but if your spouses die, we need to talk about Social Security survivor benefits. Let’s take an individual who, let’s be sexist about this, let’s say the husband dies and the wife has been receiving spousal benefits based on the husband’s Social Security record. Those spousal benefits will need to be converted to certify for benefits. The spousal benefit will, in most cases but it varies because of all sorts of crazy Social Security rules and regulations, the spousal benefit is typically much less once the wage earner dies. However, survivor benefits probably are going to be higher than the reduced spousal benefit. All of this is just totally crazy and mind-boggling, and it depends on whether you as the wife have your own Social Security work record or you’re relying on your spouse’s work record. The key thing to do is to take a copy of the death certificate to the Social Security office and have them walk you through an explanation of what you will be entitled to as a survivor rather than a spouse.

In most cases following a spouse's death, survivor benefits are going to be higher than the reduced… Click To Tweet

And another thing to throw in there too, I learned this the other day as well, if you’ve been married for ten years, more than ten years, and you are now divorced from the now-deceased person, you can then do the same thing here and go and apply for the survivor benefit, which may be greater than the benefit you had earlier.

If you were married for more than 10 years to an individual, you can apply for survivor benefits when that… Click To Tweet

Right. The key point to keep in mind is that you’re entitled to the highest that you’re entitled to. If you’re entitled to two different funds, you get the highest. Yes, if you were married to your ex for ten years, you can get survivor benefits, even though there is, let’s say, a surviving spouse. Surviving ex-spouses can also apply for Social Security survivor benefits.


Okay! Insurance! Health insurance, moving away from life insurance to health insurance. Again, this depends on what kind of health insurance you had prior to your spouse’s death. Were you a beneficiary of, let’s say, a retiree health plan? If we’re talking basic, straight Medicare, Medicare is an individual policy, and there are no surviving beneficiaries on a Medicare policy. So the surviving spouse will need to get in touch with the insurance company and let them know that the circumstances have changed. The surviving spouse may now need to apply for, well, if they’re over 65, they can apply for Medicare for themselves. But they may need to identify with the insurance company if they were getting insurance through their husband’s place of employment, or through a retiree plan. But you’re going to have to now go about the process of making sure that you’re covered with your own health insurance.

Well that’s a rare breed today, a retiree health plan.

Thank goodness for working for AARP for 23 years, I do! And my husband working for the federal government for 35 years. I’m covered with his federal retiree health insurance

Mm-hmm. That’s a gift. 

What a gift, what a gift. Yes, absolutely.

That’s great.

Okay, where do you want to go next?

Well, I think where we want to go is to say we have to wrap this up, because we’ve been talking, believe it or not, for almost 45 minutes, and I’d love to just keep going, so maybe there’s another one that we need to do, which is what do you do after the first month? And where do you go from there? But for what we’ve done today, I think we’ll wrap it up here and I just want to say thank you so much to Sally Hurme, and say thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it. This is the third one we’ve done together, and most of what you’ve talked about, not most, all of it, has been really helpful, I think, for a lot of baby boomer women to understand some of the ins and outs, and really the mechanics of the things we have to look at, things we have to do. So I really appreciate what you’ve done, and I thank you for bearing with me for three times to get this done. And there may be a fourth, there’s always a return possibility. So thank you, Sally, I really appreciate it. And to all of you in my Power Of The Purse community, I hope today’s podcast was helpful in enriching your understanding of money, and how it can help you achieve your life goals. Just so people can get a hold of you if they want to, if they have more questions, Sally, how can they best reach you?                                                

The best way to reach me is by email, and it’s a very simple one. It’s sallyhurme@gmail.com. And of course, there’s always my books that you can turn to for additional details. And I sort of cover a whole lot more in there, a lot of details to pay attention to. But that book is called again: Checklist for Family Survivors.

Yeah, and we’ve talked about the other ones in previous…I’ve only got four of them listed, how did I miss two? I have Get The Most Out of Retirement, Checklist for My Family, Checklist for Family Survivors, and Checklist for Family Caregivers. Which ones did I miss? 

Well, I also have an earlier edition called Checklist for Family Heirs, as well as I’ve been the editor for Fundamentals of Guardianship.

Okay, so we heard them all, that’s good, all right! Sally, thanks. And thanks for sharing your time and your knowledge. And until the next time, thanks for listening, and remember, money is not the enemy, your ignorance of it is. Goodbye!


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