Becoming a widow or widower after decades of marriage is crushing enough, but then comes a tsunami of decisions about finances and tasks that demand attention, when you are least able to manage it. Even highly successful business owners can find themselves overwhelmed, says The New York Times in the article “You’re a Widow, Now What?”
Most couples tend to divide up tasks, where one handles investments and the other pays the bills. However, moving from a team effort to a solo one is not easy. For one widow, the task was made even harder by the fact that her husband opted to keep his portfolio in paper certificates, which he kept in his desk. His widow had to hire a financial advisor and a bookkeeper, and it took nearly a year to determine the value of nearly 120 certificates. That was just one of many issues.
She had to settle the affairs of the estate, deal with insurance companies, banks and credit cards that had to be cancelled. Her husband was also a partner in a business, which added another layer of complexity.
She decided to approach the chaos, as if it were a business. She worked on it six to eight hours a day for many months, starting with organizing all the paperwork. That meant a filing system. A grief therapist advised the widow to get up, get dressed as if she was going to work and to make sure she ate regular meals. This often falls by the wayside, when the structure of a life is gone.
This widow opened a consulting business to advise other widows on handling the practical aspects of settling an estate and also wrote a book about it.
A spouse’s death is one of the most emotionally wrenching events in a person’s life. Statistically, women live longer than men, so they are more likely to lose a spouse and have to get their financial lives organized under duress. The loss of a key breadwinner’s income can be a big blow to a widow who has never lived on her own. The tasks come fast and furious, in a terribly emotional time.
You’ll likely be very vulnerable after the death of your long-time spouse. Hold off on any big decisions (like moving, quitting a job, selling the house) and attack your to-do list in stages. Some of a widow’s first tasks will be contacting the Social Security administration, calling the life insurance company, and paying important bills, like utilities and property insurance premiums. If your husband was working, contact his employer for any unpaid salary, accrued vacation days, group life insurance, and retirement plan benefits.
Next, contact an estate planning attorney to make sure your own estate plan is in order. Name your adult children, trusted family members, or friends as agents for your financial and health care power of attorney, and consider creating a revocable living trust. Update your beneficiaries on life insurance and annuity policies. If probate is needed for your spouse’s estate, the estate planning attorney can advise you (many handle probates) or refer you to another lawyer.
Deciding how to take the proceeds from any life insurance policies depends upon your immediate cash needs and whether you can earn more from the payout by investing the lump sum. Make this decision part of your overall financial strategy – ideally with a trusted financial advisor.
Determining a Social Security claiming strategy as a widow comes next. You may be able to increase your benefit, depending on your age and income level. If you wait until your full retirement, you can claim the full survivor benefit, which is 100% of the spouse’s benefit. If you claim it before that time, the amount will be permanently reduced. If you and your spouse are at least 70 at his death, you may benefit by switching to a survivor benefit if your benefit is smaller than his. Your financial advisor or the Social Security office can help you crunch the numbers.
It’ll be quite a while before you feel like you’re on solid ground. If you were working when your spouse died, consider continuing to work to keep yourself out and about in a familiar world. Anything you can do to maintain your old life, like staying in the family home, if finances permit, will help as you go through the grief process.
Reference: The New York Times (April 11, 2019) “You’re a Widow, Now What?”