April 2017
For What It's Worth

A Learning Experience

In December 2016, my wife unexpectedly passed away. While loss of a spouse or family member is very traumatic, dealing with all the financial, legal and other obligations is extremely stressful. Add a farm into the mix and there is more to consider. I am about to share some of my experiences in hopes readers will learn from this.

Computers and Cellphones: Make sure someone very close to you knows how to access your computer and cellphone. I had no idea what my wife’s password was for either device. After three days of guessing passwords, my son finally accessed her laptop computer. We never were unable to access her smartphone, despite my explanation of the situation and, due to privacy laws, the service provider could not disclose it. Three weeks later, I canceled service to the phone.

Bank Accounts: Make sure each bank account has a designated beneficiary. This includes checking, savings, money market and even certificate of deposit accounts. Designating a payable-on-death account prevents the money from going through probate court where an attorney and court get a portion of these funds. With a POD designation, the money legally and directly goes to the person named as a beneficiary.

Probate Court: Wikipedia tells us that "probate court deals with matters of probate and the administration of estates. Probate courts administer proper distribution of assets of a decedent, adjudicates the validity of wills, enforces the provisions of a valid will, and provides for the equitable distribution of the assets of persons who die intestate (without a valid will). It does this by stipulating a grant of administration giving judicial approval to the personal representative to administer matters of the estate."

I ended up going through probate on a savings account, small stock market investment and very small checking account. Even though the value of these combined funds was less than $10,000, fees from probate court were about $500 and attorney fees were $1,500.

Will: Seek legal counsel when it comes to having a valid will. It is in the best interest of your family. My wife thought she had one (through an online service), but, a few weeks after her passing, a lawyer looked at it and informed me her will was invalid. She had signed as witness to her own will, which cannot be done. What bothered me most was the notary had not caught this and specified someone else to sign as witness. Despite all this, I was very lucky in that most of the bank accounts were in my name and most investments had me listed as beneficiary.

Investments and Life Insurance Policies: Be prepared to contact all financial institutions and insurance companies to see if you are listed as beneficiary on every account. If you are verified as beneficiary, be prepared to provide a death certificate and fill out lots of paperwork in order to have investments transferred into your name and process life insurance policies for payment. These can be mailed, faxed, scanned and emailed.

Death Certificate: Situations will vary whether you receive a pending or final death certificate. If you receive a pending death certificate, it is because final cause of death has not been determined and more than likely requires an autopsy. My wife was thought to be in relatively good health and there was no obvious cause of death; so her body was sent off for autopsy. The state medical examiner’s office told me at the very beginning that an autopsy can take four to eight weeks or more; eight weeks later and I am still waiting. Luckily, most financial institutions have accepted the pending copy, while insurance companies may or may not.

And then there is the matter of the farm. I work full time and farm part time on a small scale. Anyone who has a farm knows there are certain responsibilities. I remain dedicated to my job, take care of the farm and try to resolve all these legal issues; not an easy task.

By no means does this article cover everything I have had to deal with during this process and I am not an expert in these matters. This has been a learning experience for me.

Now is the time to make plans for dealing with the loss of a loved one or yourself. There are resources for information. Make sure to ask lots of questions and don’t be afraid to ask for help.


Robert Spencer is an Urban Regional Extension Specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..