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How life insurance helped one woman build a new life after her husband's death

In 2003, Melissa Wandall was nine months' pregnant with her first child when her husband died. Mark Wandall was an up-and-coming financial adviser who was known for his generosity, optimism, love of family and zest for life. Just a few weeks before the birth of his baby girl, 30-year-old Mark was killed in a car crash, struck by a driver who ran a red light.

When people named as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy, they generally don’t expect to receive the policy's death benefit. Melissa Wandall, who's 44 and lives in Sarasota, Fla., received the cash benefits from her husband’s life insurance policies after he died. Mark Wandall's survivors are examples of how life insurance can preserve a family and help them move forward.

How life insurance helps

After Mark Wandall’s death, the future that the Wandalls had planned was thrown into uncertainty. Fortunately, they had purchased life insurance – both a term life insurance policy and a whole life insurance policy. Even though Melissa's husband couldn't be replaced, he had taken steps to ensure that his family would be protected in the event of his death.

Two weeks after her husband’s death, Wandall gave birth to their daughter, Madisyn. The new mother felt mixed emotions about receiving the life insurance benefits. She declines to disclose the amount of the insurance payout.

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“It was an incredibly stressful time, but because we had life insurance, I knew that we didn’t need to worry about money,” Wandall says. “I was grateful that I was able to focus on taking care of Madisyn and taking time to heal. I also felt guilty, like my husband had to die for us to be OK.”

Wandall needed to take some time after her husband died to decide how to make long-term plans for the life insurance money. “I had to get to the point where I was ready to put the money to the best possible use,” she says.

Tony Steuer, a life insurance expert from California, says that Wandall took the right approach in giving herself time to consider what to do with the money.

“Studies have shown that it takes time for most people to be ready to deal with financial matters after a death, often six months to a year or more,” Steuer says. “If you’re a beneficiary of a life insurance policy and you do not already have a financial plan for that money, you should leave the money in an interest-bearing account and wait until you’re emotionally prepared to make a specific plan.”

As part of moving forward, Wandall met with a financial planner and an attorney to organize her finances, create long-term savings and college funds for her daughter, write up a will and set up an estate plan.

It took more than two years for Melissa to finish planning her estate. She realized along the way that the emotional process of coming to terms with her husband’s death was reflected in her own financial planning.

“For a long time, I was afraid to take a step forward with the life insurance money,” Wandall says. “I did my estate planning bit by bit, working with my lawyer, making sure my daughter was protected.”

As part of that protection, Wandall now has a whole life insurance policy of her own.

Steuer says that ideally, married couples should talk to each other about how they want their life insurance proceeds to be used. Couples can designate specific plans for any life insurance proceeds as part of the overall process of writing a will and doing an estate plan. Life insurance death benefits can be held in a family trust or managed with help from a financial adviser.

“People can specify in their estate plan how they want the life insurance money to be spent or invested,” Steuer says. “Or the trust could spell out how the money will be invested in a mix of CDs, mutual funds or cash.”

Mark’s legacy

Wandall recommends that people who've lost a loved one find a way to memorialize that person by putting the life insurance proceeds toward a meaningful cause.

“Mark was beautiful, bold and brilliant,” she says. “I was only with my husband for five years, but I feel like in those five years, I was loved more than anyone else, and I wanted his life to continue.”

Wandall used part of the life insurance money to establish the Mark Wandall Foundation, dedicated to improving traffic safety and to helping children cope with the loss of a loved one.

Wandall also led a grassroots coalition in Florida to lobby the state legislature to pass the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, which was signed into law in 2010. The new law makes it easier for Florida cities to install traffic cameras at dangerous intersections.

Under the law, $10 from every traffic ticket issued to a red-light runner is donated to the Florida Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund and hospital trauma centers, and $3 per ticket is donated to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Thanks to the advocacy of Wandall and her organization, more $2 million has been raised for spinal injury research.

Today, Melissa Wandall works as a public speaker, helping insurance agents understand the power of making a difference in the lives of people who are protected by life insurance. She also serves as a mentor for bereaved families, helping them to find strength and hope to move forward after the loss of a loved one.

“People never want to talk about the death of a loved one, but I hope that my story can help other people,” Wandall says. “People need to know that life insurance is not about loss -- it’s about love. It’s not about a monthly payment -- it’s about ensuring longevity and vitality for your family. Mark never got to meet our daughter, but through his life planning, he made it possible for us to make a legacy of our own.”

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