You’re a Widow. Now What?

When a spouse dies, women (and it’s usually women) are often faced with a daunting list of financial chores that they’ve never tackled before. Here’s how to cope.

Comments: 26

  1. I can certainly relate to the issues addressed in this article, since I had to deal with many of them after losing my spouse in 2015. I will be forever grateful to my lawyer who guided and advised me through the process. That said, I have been guided and motivated by a statement my father made when I was a senior in high school and contemplating college. "College is a waste of money for a girl. You will only marry and have a husband to support you." That did not strike me as a solid life/financial plan to me those many years ago. So I supported myself through college degrees, pursued a satisfying career and set up a financial plan early on. My mantra: even if I marry a millionaire, I will have my own financial arrangements. A wise decision that was, since my late spouse, fine partner that he was, had a generally cavalier attitude toward money. We enjoyed life thoroughly for many years and I continue to do so with the financial cushion that I set up for myself.

  2. “Make no irreversible decisions in the first six months to a year.” Many of us had no choice but to make those kind decisions. Wealthy widows have little to teach me.

  3. @Mary A So true. My father passed away at the end of 2018 and I immediately had to bring my mother to live with us. She could not financially afford to live alone. Irreversible decisions sometimes need to be made immediately.

  4. @Mary A Exactly. Sounds like I am in the same boat you are.

  5. In all the families I know, the wife handles the $ and calls the financial shots.

  6. In this age of feminism, women don't feel a ounce of hypocrisy at their feeling sorry for themselves always, and not for the fact that their spouses drop dead 20, 30, 40 years, before they do. Why is there no article in the Press about the way men are beasts of burden all through their short lives, forever carrying the weight and stress of maintaining a family. Poor women! They have to manage life suddenly after the husband died. Having been the pampered sex who's only stress was meeting friends for lunch and going shopping --- suddenly have to face the world. Let's give a cheer for feminism!

  7. I was widowed in my early 50s after my husband's catastrophic illness. We had a 16 year old at home. The grief, fear, and sheer exhaustion were almost overwhelming; it was my son's well-being that was my true north. Here are some things other women should know. First, life insurance is necessary. My husband was initially resistant when I insisted we both buy it (in our 40s). I find this is the case with many husbands, but in our case it was obviously a godsend. Second, allot a number of hours each day for dealing with the bank and financial institutions. It's unpleasant, grueling and frustrating. Don't do it for eight hours each day. Try four hours with breaks. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Third, make sure you know your passwords. Next, make sure you have a will. It simplifies everything. We didn't and I spent a lot of money unecessarily on attorney fees. Last, and this has nothing to do with financial issues, set boundaries with well-meaning but intrusive family members. Remember, your needs and your childrens' needs come first. Good luck and god bless.

  8. All good advice here, based on my own experience. I do want to add, though, that it's not just that one spouse does all the financial business and the other doesn't; it's also the circumstances of the loss. In the end stages of a terminal illness, nobody is really minding the store. There are more pressing practical issues at hand, plus all the stress of dealing with the approaching death of a cherished partner. That being said, the first 6 months of life without my husband was felt like learning to ride a bicycle at age 65. Very wobbly. But along with the general cleanup of accounts and automatic bill payments came a gradual sense of regaining control. We do what we can, however small that seems at the time. "It took a long time to get back the feeling of security..." ---yes, that's the essence of it. Actually FEELING secure, not rushed and pressured.

  9. Regarding RMDs (required minimum distributions): I left my husband's 401-K in his company account. It was a comfort to know I could access it in an emergency. I thought I wouldn't have to take an RMD until ‘I’ turned 70 1/2. I was wrong. I was forced to take it based on his date of birth. I checked with a CPA, an HR specialist, and a brokerage firm and was informed even if I rolled it over into an IRA, it would always be considered a 'beneficiary' account thereby the RMDs would always be based on the original owner's date of birth. They gave me an end date based on the actuarial projection of when they think I'll drop dead. I marked it on my calendar. Second, the author doesn't mention the fly-in-the-ointment: healthcare. My husband's employment provided our medical insurance coverage. Had my husband lived to retirement age, we both would have been covered until our deaths. As he died at age 58, we were immediately cut off. I was able to obtain medical insurance for the children, but I was cherry-picked out of the insurance marketplace due to a pre-existing condition - stress. I had begun to take Lorazepam for panic attacks subsequent to my husband's diagnosis. I had to exhaust COBRA (expensive), then was transferred to a high-risk pool (expensive). The ACA allowed me some premium relief when it was enacted. Regarding big decisions: had I sold my house before the real estate bubble burst, I could have gotten twice a much. So it goes.

  10. @itsmildeyes Lots of useful insights. And a great quote: "They gave me an end date based on the actuarial projection of when they think I'll drop dead. I marked it on my calendar." OK, but use a No. 2 pencil. Best wishes for your future.

  11. Just as men should know about running a household in terms of housekeeping, women should know how to run a household in terms of bookkeeping. It is the 21st century. Mutual independence rather than mutual dependence will make life easier together as well as after one person is no longer there, whether through death or divorce.

  12. I handle all the financial affairs for my spouse and me. I manage the investments, pay the bills, do the taxes, etc. It is obvious that my spouse would be in a daze of grief and confusion were I to pass away. As a small attempt to assist her should that happen, I keep a list of all of our accounts, instructions on how to access those accounts, locations of documents, contact info for our financial advisor, attorney, etc in a file on my computer. I update the file on a regular (at least annually) basis and print a copy for her. She keeps that paper copy in the notebook that she uses every day so that it will be there should she need it. Most likely she'll hand it over to someone else to assist, but at least she/they have a starting point.

  13. My son has that list. At our stage in life, I fear that not-yet-diagnosed dementia could really screw things up were I to die. Giving all that information to an elderly spouse could be as damaging as flushing it down the toilet.

  14. Plan ahead: all accounts joint (except for IRA.) Wills & health care directives done. Document all accounts, all passwords, all automatic payments, all dates for bills due. Then —Know if any big decisions can wait (&how long.) I have little patience with the mantra advising no decisions should be made for months and months—that totally depends on personal circumstances, financial and age and emotional. Get plenty of death certificates. (Ask funeral home if they notify social security.) Try not to expect too much of yourself. Share stories with other widows( how do you eat dinner now? Etc) AND learn to ask for and accept help. These are some of the lessons of a woman whose husband died last August.

  15. My husband was diagnosed with a rare brain disease last summer at age 68 & is now living in a nursing home,so I'm not a widow technically but one in waiting. Beside dealing with unbearable grief I had & am still dealing with Medicaid,a unbelievable nightmare. My husband was an accomplished concert pianist ,a CPA & my primary caregiver - I have post Lyme Lupus and Rheumatoid arthritis. My advice for the remaining spouse is to know exactly where all of your $ is & who to contact, for me it was our financial advisor & a Medicaid lawyer & also a good tnerapist.Without these key people I could not have possibly dealt with everything when the rug was pulled out from under me.

  16. My advice: every woman should have her OWN money that she can save, invest, and access as needed. This can be necessary for more situations than the death of a spouse.

  17. I "lost" my husband of 35 years unexpectedly through divorce, and I faced many of these same issues, plus at the same time my father declined rapidly from PSP (related to Parkinson's and Lou Gehrig's disease) and then died during the course of my divorce and I had to help my 90-year-old mother who also has dementia-related problems. I had not concerned myself with financial matters at all during my marriage, which is how my ex was able to hide his dalliances from me. Suddenly I was in charge of not only my own finances, but also my mother's, and I was in a state of shock that lasted for several years. I was lucky to have a circle of caring friends who steered me to good attorneys and financial advisers. But some things I just had to figure out on my own eventually. There aren't enough guidebooks out there on how to deal with all of this, and how to make decisions when you are under tremendous stress and the need to make quick decisions that will affect the rest of your life. Perhaps in this day and age women will cease to be thought of as the lesser sex who need to be protected from the complexities of financial matters. Our daughters and granddaughters need to take just as much interest in the details of the stock market and life insurance and credit cards as our sons should, and not delegate one partner in a marriage to be solely in charge of that stuff. I had to help my mother close joint bank accounts and open new ones, and take care of credit cards also.

  18. I'd like to echo the comment about making sure your spouse has access to all the account names and passwords for your financial accounts. One of the best ways to do this is to use a password manager for which you both have access. I'd also recommend including your email, phone, and computer logon passwords. Many of these accounts would be used to pay bills, change passwords or addresses, etc., and you could find it otherwise time-consuming to get accounts switched into your name without them. Also, consider the possibility that you both die at the same time in an accident; your will's executor should probably be able to access these accounts easily, so you might include your password manager information in printed version in your safe deposit box.

  19. This also applies to adult children who need to step in and help the surviving spouse. Its truly overwhelming to have to deal with all of the financial and legal details of your parent's passing when you're trying to help you're mother emotionally, do your job, raise your family, buy a house, etc. There is a huge market for turnkey services, but I don't see many advertised or referenced by friends. I'm guessing that as lawyers or CPAs get into this, they will find a large customer base who values the help.

  20. Having a good financial planner is like having a good priest or rabbi: it's a good idea to build that relationship early (when you may not feel like you need it as much) so that when the unthinkable (but inevitable) happens, you have someone you trust and feel very comfortable around to help you when you're most emotionally fragile.

  21. I'm dismayed by the astonishing complexity of our financial and Social Security laws referred to in this article. I have a Masters Degree and love to read, but struggled to navigate Medicare's complexity in a class specifically designed to explain Medicare. These systems and laws seem designed- intentionally or inadvertently - to benefit a small section of Americans who understand the jargon. The rest of us must depend on others to get us through - and hope that we've made wise choices in our advisors. But how will we know we didin't until it's too late?

  22. "Roughly 34 percent of women 65 and older were widows in 2016, compared with about 12 percent of men, according to the Census Bureau." Well, in conventional usage at least, 12% of of men whose female spouses have died are not "widows," but 100% of them are "widowers." Not sure how this shakes out in the new genderscape of language, or how same-sex surviving male spouses are referred to.

  23. It might be nice if some of the entities we have to deal with made things easier and behaved in a kinder manner. Though not a spouse we recently lost a family member and had to deal with her home, etc. I needed a death certificate to close her cable service, 6 calls to the gas company. When I went to change her mailing address I had to ask the postal worker to be nicer, she was so harsh. And we were prepared, had a will and a relationship with her financial advisor. It was non stop for three months for someone who rented an apartment, only owned a car and a small IRA. Be as prepared as you can be. It’s a bumpy ride.

  24. My wife handled all our finances. She was very good at it and loved doing it. Yes, she did. When she died, I was beset with many serious financial problems as well as having to manage my overwhelming grief. At about the same time my lawyer, account, financial adviser and physician retired. Get the picture? While much financial advice is applicable to both widows and widowers, there is hardly anything about male grieving and the complications that go with it I tried to find any information on how I could help myself, both emotionally and financially. What I discovered was that very little had to do with widowers and their grief. While dozens of books, some by famous writers (Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, e.g.) were written about getting through grief and depression ( which also complicates clear financial decisions ) there is very little available to assist men. The "mantra" was to find good helpers (including a therapist). Easier said then done. Many men are in this difficult situation and our needs are rarely discussed. We need the kind of help that women typically show towards each other.

  25. I lost my husband unexpectedly this summer no warning signs. I found myself in a state of complete shock and was completely overwhelmed trying to manage everything. My husband died out of state and there was more than a months delay in getting his death certificate because we were out of state. The mortgage company , credit cars etc... no one cares about your situation or giving you a break . I could have easily gone bankrupt if we did not have a life insurance policy that released a little cash up front. My husband also served in the Navy 22 years...it took 8 months for the Navy to begin my annuity pay and that was me getting my senator involved. Please note they have not yet paid me almost $ 10,000 in back pay however they let me know I will be taxed on it. I found it was very easy to lose it all after I already lost so much.

  26. I handle all of our finances by mutual agreement; I’m just better at math than my husband, and have more of an interest in the details. That said, we have a shared online password manager, a responsive financial manager who meets with us annually and as needed, and have recently updated our wills and other documents before moving. Most importantly, we have a thumb drive with the name, address, phone number and account number of every bill, service provider (eg, medical, acct, etc), credit card, insurer, bank, membership, funeral/cemetery contact, subscription, email account, etc. We learned that from my mom’s “notebook”. When she died many years ago, my sisters and I followed the path laid out in her notebook, since we saw who and how to contact everyone necessary. It made closing her estate much easier. One tidbit: leave the checking account open way longer than you think. We were surprised at the random checks (and medical bills!) coming in her name even a year or more after her death. And yes, get many more death certificates than you think you’ll need (we got 20). Surprising how many utility companies won’t close an account without a death certificate. PS, in the middle of the notebook, she surprisingly (to us) left each of us a personal, private letter. Priceless.