How you should prepare now for the death of a spouse

What needs to be in your will

When Christine Baumgartner's husband, Tony, died suddenly at age 64 in 2012, it was tragic but not a shock. It was, unfortunately, something the couple had been planning for.

In fact, Tony had been planning for his death since his teenage years, long before he met Christine, a dating and relationship coach in Orange County, California. Tony was born with a heart condition. When he was 16, his father died of a heart attack. Two years later, when Tony was 18, his doctor told him he would probably be dead by 26.

When Christine met Tony in 2005, he was 57. On their fourth date, he explained that he had been living with a chronic heart condition, and had, as he put it, "outlived his expiration date."

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Despite the uncertainties, Tony and Christine married in 2007, and while they both hoped to be together for decades, they recognized the importance of planning for the worst. When the worst came five years later, Christine was free to grieve without worrying that she might become financially destitute. Long before Tony passed, he ensured he had a will in place, a retirement account, stocks and a small life insurance policy. (He couldn't get a big one with his medical history.)

"We've all heard of those horrible stories where the widow knew nothing about their finances and was either blindsided by debt or taken advantage of by people who offered to help her manage her finances," Christine says. And so, while Tony handled their money, including filing their taxes, Christine adds, "I knew about every financial detail in our lives."

As unpleasant as it may be, it's wise for spouses to do what they can to be prepared for the other person's death, even if both intend to live for a very long time. It's no easy task, but here's a roundup of important steps to take to prepare for the worst.

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Make sure your documents are in order. That includes any life insurance policies, wills, property deeds, car titles and bank account and investment details. You both should know where these are (ahem, not jammed in some desk drawer) and ensure they're up to date.

Don't neglect that will. Yes, you know you should have one. And yes, you're going to get around to it. But Gary Altman, founder and principal attorney at Altman & Associates, an estate planning firm in Rockville, Maryland, shares a cautionary tale that highlights why it's important to get one written – now.

He represents a 35-year-old mother of two young boys, whose husband recently died unexpectedly. He had no will in a state whose law dictates that 50 percent of his assets go to his wife and 50 percent to the kids unless otherwise legally specified. While this sounds nice in theory, the kids are young, and the money went into a court-controlled account she couldn't touch outright.

"The mother had to go to court to ask to be appointed their guardian and now has to get permission from the courts to use the funds," Altman says.

The more money you make, the more important it is to draft a will, if you care about what happens to your assets when you're gone. The estate-planning industry is currently abuzz because superstar musician Prince, who was divorced and whose son died in infancy, reportedly didn't write a will before passing away.

Organize your shared and individual passwords. If you can't access a bank account, say, because your spouse had a special password you weren't privy to, you can see what sort of trouble can arise.

Spouses should make a list of passwords for all online accounts, including 401(k)s, investments, bank accounts, really everything. This list should be stored in a place that both spouses, and perhaps adult children, know about, says Lesley Weiner, a certified financial planner with MidAtlantic Resource Group in Totowa, New Jersey.

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Plan now, save headaches (and money) later. It isn't fun to talk about death, especially if you and your spouse are as healthy as the proverbial horse. But Keith Newcomb, a certified financial planner in Nashville, Tennessee, says it's a lot cheaper to work things out now versus waiting until you're grieving and emotionally wrenched.

Especially if you need legal help to get your family finances in order, he adds.

"The better organized and prepared you are, the more concisely you can communicate your wishes, and the faster the attorney can prepare documents," he says. After all, notes Newcomb: "Many attorneys work on an hourly rate."

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How you should prepare now for the death of a spouse

Dog-sitting, babysitting, or house-sitting

These jobs are always in high demand, and the best part: you can name your price and create your own schedule! Post an ad on craigslist, or use your friends' and family's connections to get your name out there. 

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Rent out your space 

List your apartment on Airbnb or another rental site, and make some easy cash by staying at a friends and renting out your place for the weekend.

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Share your space

Just as you can rent out your full apartment or house, you can also post a free room (or even just your couch!) on sites like Craigslist or Airbnb. This way you can split your living expenses -- and maybe even make a new friend!

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Sell your body parts

Now here's a weird one: Donate your hair, breast milk, or even plasma for a profit. According to Grifols, if you're healthy and weigh above 110 pounds, you can earn up to $200 a month donating your plasma to life-saving medicine. 

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Sign up to participate in medical tests and clinical trials. 

Universities constantly need volunteers to test new medicines and treatments -- and because the pool of willing participants is limited, there is typically a large compensation for being a guinea pig. 

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Participate in a focus group

Companies and organizations will pay you to join a focus group. These can be conducted in person, online, or via phone. You will most likely be reimbursed in cash or gift cards -- plus, you often get to test out fun new products! 

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Take online surveys

Similar to focus groups, you can get paid to give your time and insights on an online questionairre. Plus, you can do this from the comfort of your couch. 

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Bank on your sperm

Although we don't necessarily recommend this option, there is a very high demand for healthy sperm donors. Keep in mind some of the obvious drawbacks, but sperm donation is non-invasive and highly compensated. 

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Crowdfund your dreams

Crowdfunding allows you to raise monetary contributions from a large group of people who want to support your venture. Post your project or idea on a crowdfund site, like, and see the cash pile up.

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Become a tutor

If you're qualified, post an ad online or on a community board to tutor children on their school courses or for the upcoming SATs.

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Get a part-time job

Capitalize your free time (on the weekends or after work hours) by working a part-time job. A bartender, waiter, or Uber driver are all great options for an additional source of income -- and great tips! 

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Resell tickets

Take this suggestion at your own risk: If you're staying within legal limits, buy tickets low and sell high as an effective way to source additional money. (Just make sure to check your state and local laws first!)

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You can sell anything on the internet these days... including your companionship! Get paid to go on a platonic outing for a few hours and enjoy your afternoon with a new friend. 

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Rent out your parking spot

Make sure to check with your landlord first, but if you have the option to park your own car further away, lend or share your parking space or driveway for the hour, day, or even month! 

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Keep a coin jar 

This one takes patience before a big pay out, but keep a spare jar or drawer for loose change that you usually toss anyway. It will keep it all in one place -- and those quarters do add up! 

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Make something to sell 

If you have a knack for arts & crafts, create jewelry or other handmade gifts to sell on sites filled with other thrifty vendors like Etsy

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Sell items online

This effective strategy requires low effort with a high return. Post photos of your used or non-used items on sites like eBay or Craigslist, and let the bidding begin! 

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Have a yard sale

Sell clutter you've been meaning to get rid of right in your front yard. This simple tactic is convenient, and guarantees a wad of cash right to your pocket.  

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Return past purchases

This tip may seem obvious, but is often overlooked: Take your recently-purchased items that are laying around back to the store for either store credit or a full refund. 

Recycle scrap metal and cans

Collect cans and scrap metal out your own garbage, basement, and street and bring to your local recycler to exchange your findings for money.  

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