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Women, widowhood and retirement

Key decisions after the loss of your spouse

When you promised to love your spouse “until death do us part,” you didn’t expect that day to arrive when it did. You’re not alone.

More women than men lose their spouse to death — in fact, women are at least three times more likely to be widowed than men.1 In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that of the 15 million widows and widowers living in the United States, about 77 percent — or 11.4 million — of them were women.2

And widows generally have several years of life left to live. For example, more than 30 percent of widows in this country are women age 60 years old and younger.3 And it’s not unusual for a woman to spend more than 15 years as a widow.4

Knowing that there are millions of women who’ve experienced a loss like yours certainly doesn’t ease your pain.

However, having a strong support group of family and friends can provide comfort. As you navigate your way forward, being aware of what you can expect in the days ahead and how best to handle each phase on your journey will help, too.

Phase 1: Prepare to move forward

If your spouse recently died, you’re probably in a state of shock and are trying to come to terms with your loss. Now is not the time to make permanent life-changing decisions while you’re still trying to wrap your head around your new reality. During this time, you might experience a “brain freeze.” That’s when your memory is weak, your attention span is short, and your ability to make sound decisions is difficult.2

So put any major financial decisions, such as paying off or selling your house and any other long-term financial plans, on the back burner. Instead, for the time being, have your financial professional put any death proceeds into a safe account. This will buy you time to think about what you’d like to do with this money down the road.2

Then, direct your focus on the funeral. Preparing for the funeral itself will involve a lot of your time and energy. Perhaps funeral arrangements were previously made: If so, follow up on them. If not, enlist a family member or friend to come with you to the funeral home to make arrangements. Family and friends can also help with some of the following tasks: contacting loved ones to let them know about your spouse’s passing and any memorial services that are planned, writing and submitting an obituary, and keeping a record of everyone who sends donations, flowers, and cards. Remember: Sending out thank-you’s at a later date to the people who are there for you now is part of the healing process.

This is also the phase when you’ll give attention to your immediate needs, such as cash flow, paying your bills, and starting the estate administration. This includes contacting an attorney to assist with the estate administration and probate process, locating your spouse’s estate planning documents and providing them to the attorney, and creating a list of your spouse’s assets and debts.

Now’s the time to file as beneficiary on your spouse’s retirement accounts, get permission to access your spouse’s financial accounts, notify your insurance companies, and file for survivor’s Social Security benefits.1

Also, obtain several copies (at least 10) of your spouse’s death certificate from the funeral director. You’ll need this proof-of-death document to enable you to gain access to your deceased spouse’s accounts.4

Phase 2: The first steps forward

Give yourself enough time to grieve and adjust to your new normal. Friends and family who helped get you through phase one are sure to want to be there for you during this next stage. However, consider talking to a grief counselor or joining a support group for widows. Regular talk therapy might be the emotional support you need to help you deal with your loss.5

Also during this time, you’ll still be working with your attorney (from phase one) to complete the estate and probate administration tasks — and to meet the various deadlines for each.

It’s also time to review your finances. This includes retirement income (and other sources of income), housing needs, and cash flow. Ask your financial professional to help you put together a budget. You’ll also want to review your investments, keeping in mind that the investment choices you made with your husband might not work for you as a single person.

Retirement income involves having adequate cash flow and building cash reserves. Your survivor benefits can help with this and include income from:

  • Social Security
  • Department of Veteran Affairs
  • Life insurance
  • Annuities
  • Deceased’s employer for survivor benefits

Ask yourself: Are the financial choices you are making in sync with your future goals? What do you see yourself doing and how are you setting yourself up financially so you can make that happen? And while you like to think the best of people, be aware that someone might ask you for a loan or even an inheritance. Don’t feel obligated to give out your money, you are not a bank.

Where you live is a major part of your life. And relocating to a new home too soon after your husband’s death can cause secondary grief, adding to the grief you’re already experiencing.2 But when you’re ready, you may want to consider downsizing or moving closer to family and friends. Or perhaps you want to move someplace warmer or near more amenities you love. Now may be the time to make your move.

Phase 3: Chart your own course

Once you’re able to look beyond your immediate needs, you can start thinking about establishing your new sense of purpose and independence.

You’re still you. But now you have to fill your days — and heart — with other things you enjoy. Perhaps you and your spouse enjoyed hiking together, but maybe you don’t like hitting the trails as much without him by your side. On the other hand, you’ve always wanted to draw and paint nature’s beauty. Then, arm yourself with a plethora of art supplies and sign up for an art class — or sketch solo.

Your loved ones will no doubt appreciate owning one of your masterpieces someday, but you’re probably thinking about providing for the future generation in other ways. Employ strategies to maximize your estate for your retirement and for any beneficiaries at your death.

Charitable giving is also part of the roadmap, and is good for the community and for your taxes. So strategize with your financial and tax professionals to help make your giving more tax efficient.

There are going to be bumps along the road. But know that the path will get smoother as you keep moving forward — one day at a time.

 

Plan ahead

Most widows will admit that getting organized after their spouse dies is very difficult. Your brain feels foggy and, in your shock and grief, the last thing you want to do is dig through unorganized files to find necessary paperwork.

That’s why you and your spouse should prepare now for a just-in-case scenario by having hard copies of important documents tucked away in an organized file. Though unromantic as it sounds, it’s an act of love you’ll appreciate if his time comes before yours.

Download the document locater to get started. 

Want more retirement preparation tips?

Visit the retirement section of our Insights & Tools library.    

Read articles

1. Hannon, Kerry, “Preparing for the Financial Shocks of Widowhood,” Forbes.com, October 4, 2018.

2. Rehl, Kathleen M., “Recent widows need financial guidance after a spouse’s death,” cnbc.com, March 6, 2020.

3. “Widowhood: Why Women Need to Talk About This Issue,” wiserwomen.org, 2019.

4. “A Financial Checklist for Widows, Part 1,” rate.com, March 10, 2020.

5. Ackerman, Courtney E., “3 Grief Counseling Therapy Techniques & Interventions,” PositivePsychology.com, April 23, 2020.

This information is a general discussion of the relevant federal tax laws provided to promote ideas that may benefit a taxpayer. It is not intended for, nor can it be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding federal tax penalties. Taxpayers should seek the advice of their own advisors regarding any tax and legal issues specific to their situation. 

 

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