Benjamin Birken attempts to give his elderly clients, whose spouses have been diagnosed with a fatal illness, the benefit of "a slow long runway." By that Birken means time to prepare and make any long-lasting decisions prior to the death.

Such decisions are best made before the spouse's passing, since survivors during the grieving process might find reasoning and concentration impossible, Birken says. "Giving people a big checklist of tasks a week after their spouse dies is a nonstarter," according to Birken, a CFP with Woodward Financial Advisors in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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