Financial Steps to Take in Widowhood (or Not to Take)

Financial Steps to Take in Widowhood (or Not to Take)

It could be said that February is all about the heart. The American Cancer Society promotes heart awareness and wellness during the month. Celebrate National Wear Red Day with Go Red For Women occurred Feb. 6, promoting helping save women’s lives from heart disease and stroke. We also celebrate love with Valentine’s Day.

broken-heartBut for many, this time of year is difficult. More people die in the beginning of the year than other months.

Did you know the average age of widowhood is 55 and that typically it’s the husband who dies first? Sadly, this is true.

On average, women will be on their own financially for one-third of their adult lives. It’s important to stay abreast of your finances – the traumatic time of widowhood is not the time to scramble to catch up on your financial knowledge.

A large part of our practice focuses on working with widows and helping them rebuild their lives after the loss of their partners. They often come to us in a haze. Able to put one foot in front of the other and keep the day-to-day rolling but that’s about it. Many of them came from “traditional” marriages, where their spouse handled the family finances even though they may have paid the bills. Their comfort level with investment portfolios is often not very high.

Here are some things to think about if you or someone close to you is experiencing the trauma of this life event.

Put out any fires. Especially if the death of the spouse was unexpected, there is often a period of triage. Notifying financial institutions, employer/former employer, Social Security of the spouse’s passing. Keep an eye on the incoming mail for 30-90 days to keep track of bills and quarterly statements and determine what needs attention.

Get a handle on cash flow. Once the funeral expenses and, if applicable, extraordinary health care expenses for the spouse have occurred, the financial life usually heads back to normal. This is a good time to track what money is coming in (income) and what is going out (expenses) to determine if there are any gaps. If there are gaps, keep a close an eye on them.

No decisions for a year. There are many well meaning people in a widow’s life who want to help and make lots of suggestions like: You should sell the house, downsize, move, etc. But the first year (or maybe longer) the surviving spouse is in a fog and may not even remember conversations or decisions she has been involved in. Unless there is an area that needs immediate attention, all other decisions can wait.

It takes strength to stay firm on this rule, but it’s important. Making knee-jerk decisions under pressure is usually a recipe for having to make additional, tougher decisions in the future. While most major decision are on hold, there will be some simple tactical work that will need attention like re-titling account ownership and taxes. But major decisions like selling the house and moving should be shelved until the mind is clear.

We all probably know someone who has lost a loved one way too early. Remember that survivors need support. They are grieving, and they are learning how to rebuild their life. A simple phone call or a greeting card can be a tremendous source of strength.

Bill Harris is a certified financial planner practitioner. He is a member of the board of directors for the Financial Planning Association of Massachusetts and an Ed Slott Elite IRA Advisor. He is a co-founder and principal of WH Cornerstone Investments in Duxbury and Kingston. He can be reached at www.whcornerstone.com or 888-797-9009.

This article originally appeared in the Old Colony Memorial newspaper.

Helping widows rebuild their lives after the loss of a spouse. Love practicing yoga & golf. A connector. Strive to live by the Girl Scout Promise & Law.