Personal Finance

Sudden deaths like those of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain can devastate family finances

Key Points
  • Sudden death can have a large impact on the family finances.
  • Here is what financial advisors, attorneys and therapists say to do if your family is dealing with a sudden death.
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The shocking deaths of iconic fashion designer Kate Spade, 55, and gifted chef and storyteller Anthony Bourdain, 61, are spurring important discussions about mental health.

They are also a chilling reminder that a sudden death can affect any family.

A number of the leading causes of death in the United States are events that could happen without warning. Heart disease, accidents, stroke and suicide are among the top ten leading causes of death across the country, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Regardless of the cause, an unexpected death has an enormous impact on a family mentally, emotionally and physically. It can also affect family finances, depending on the amount of planning the deceased had in place.

What you can do

Here is what financial advisors, attorneys and therapists recommend in the event of a death in the family.

1. Get organized and find an expert

Secure financial and legal documents as well as important items like the deceased's keys, wallet and phone.

Locate the will, if there is one. If an executor is named, it is his or her responsibility to lead going forward.

Having organized financial documents will help you prioritize expenses going forward, including funeral arrangements and the family budget.

"Really assess the situation and figure out the things that have to be taken care of right away," said Mitchell Kraus, partner and financial advisor at Capital Intelligence Associates in Santa Monica, California.

Finding an expert, like an attorney or financial planner, will also be helpful.

"Someone with experience is going to be very helpful in this situation," said Douglas Boneparth, president of Bone Fide Wealth in New York City. They can "balance the quantitative side, but also hold the hand of the grieving spouse, child or family member."

How important is a will in wealth planning?
How important is a will in wealth planning?

2. Address your mental as well as your financial health 

Make sure that you get the support and help that you need as you grieve.

"A supportive group of friends and family can make all the difference," said Amy Moran, a psychotherapist and author of "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do."

She also said that not everyone needs treatment to deal with grief; for some, a support group or religious community will provide what they need to heal.

Taking care of yourself is key, said Kraus.

"Finances need to be taken care of, but if the emotional side is not taken care of then the finances won't come to fruition," he said.

3. Avoid major financial decisions for at least one year 

It can be tempting to make big life changes right away, but advisors and counselors say to wait.

"When you're grieving you are not thinking clearly and when you're sad or anxious you could make a decision you will regret later," said Moran.

If you do need to make a big financial decision, Moran said to seek the advice of a financial advisor or another objective third party to help weigh the pros and cons.

By not doing it [estate planning], you leave behind a massive mess.
Douglas Boneparth
President of Bone Fide Wealth

Be prepared for the unexpected

While preparing for death can seem morbid, it's important to talk about estate planning with your family and have a plan.

"The classic line is 'I don't want to burden my kids with this stuff,'" said Boneparth, "But by not doing it you leave behind a massive mess."

An attorney can help you put together basic estate planning documents, like a will, power of attorney and healthcare proxy.

If you work with an attorney to draw up these documents, make sure that you communicate both the name of your attorney who drafted the documents and your wishes to your family.

Fashion designer Kate Spade found dead in New York in apparent suicide
Fashion designer Kate Spade found dead in New York in apparent suicide

"If this were an amusement park, it would be the worst ride in the park," said Boneparth. "It's not the coolest or the most fun thing to do, but it's the most important to do."

In addition, make sure that your plans are up to date. You should revisit them periodically, especially amid life-changing events, including marriage and the birth of a child.

"It's good for people to review their estate planning on a regular basis to be sure they're on top of any changes in the law, " said Juliette Levin, an attorney in New York. She recommends going over your plans every three to five years.

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