My spouse just died. Do I have access to his or her accounts?

Generally, if your name does not appear on the account, either as a joint owner with rights of survivorship, trustee (if the account is held in trust), or a beneficiary, you probably can’t access the account unless authorized to do so by the probate court having jurisdiction over your spouse’s estate. Each state has its own laws dealing with this situation, and the applicable rules may differ from one state to the next. Even if you are named as agent in your spouse’s power of attorney with the right to access his or her accounts, that authorization ends upon the death of the person executing the power of attorney, namely your spouse.

 

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Life Insurance and Estate Planning

Life insurance has come a long way since the days when it was known as burial insurance and used mainly to pay for funeral expenses. Today, life insurance is a crucial part of many estate plans. You can use it to leave much-needed income to your survivors, provide for your children’s education, pay off your mortgage, and simplify the transfer of assets. Life insurance can also be used to replace wealth lost due to the expenses and taxes that may follow your death, and to make gifts to charity at relatively little cost to you.

To illustrate how life insurance can help you plan your estate wisely, let’s compare what happened upon the death of two friends: Frank, who bought life insurance, and Dave, who did not. (Please note that these illustrations are hypothetical.)

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Understanding Probate

Paying income tax on most retirement distributions

When you die, you leave behind your estate. Your estate consists of your assets — all of your money, real estate, and worldly belongings. Your estate also includes your debts, expenses, and unpaid taxes. After you die, somebody must take charge of your estate and settle your affairs. This person will take your estate through probate, a court-supervised process that winds up your financial affairs after your death. The proceedings take place in the state where you were living at the time of your death. Owning property in more than one state can result in multiple probate proceedings. This is known as ancillary probate.

How does probate start?

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