Melissa A. Seamon, CFP®
Becoming a widow is undoubtedly one of life’s most difficult transitions. Not only does it disrupt the future you imagined for yourself, but also presents new and difficult challenges to overcome at an already tumultuous time.
Whether your spouse’s passing was expected or unforeseen, determining your next steps in the midst of grief can feel daunting. Many of the financial decisions you made together are suddenly your sole responsibility. Now, more than ever, it will be important to make sure you seek the support and guidance you’ll need to move forward both personally and financially.
Working Through the Three Stages of Widowhood
Widowhood is a process that takes time, and everyone will move through the following stages at their own pace. But, it is important to identify the characteristics and financial implications of each stage in order to make the most informed decisions about your future.
Stage 1: Take Care of Me—Financial Triage
The first stage of widowhood is when you will feel the most vulnerable, and the emotional stress of your spouse’s passing can blur your ability to make sound financial decisions. This is why the first step is referred to as “financial triage.” You only tend to your immediate financial needs to avoid problems that could arise from delay in the future. Then, you step back, take your time, and grant yourself grace to process your grief.
- Delay Major Financial Decisions for 1 Year
Refrain from making any irrevocable financial decisions for at least one year. This includes moving or changing residences, giving gifts or loans to relatives, or any major investment decisions. Once the fog clears and you begin to emerge from this first stage, you will be better equipped to evaluate the long-lasting implications of these major decisions.
- Manage Immediate Cash Flow Needs
Get an immediate view of your cash flow to ensure your ongoing bills are paid on time and you don’t fall behind on any payments. Without an awareness or system in place to take care of your immediate needs, you put yourself at risk of financial turmoil in the future.
- File for and Check Benefits
There are some financial decisions that will be time sensitive, such as filing for death benefits from your husband’s former employer. Also check to be sure your health and other insurance policies will continue in his absence.
- Update Account Titles and Beneficiaries on Accounts
This may feel overwhelming, but it could be critical to your heirs if something happens to you. It is important to:
- Update the titles of savings and investment accounts that were in your spouse’s name or owned jointly.
- Update the beneficiaries of your savings and investments from your spouse to your children or other preferred heirs.
- Beware of pushy salespeople, nosey relatives, or prying neighbors
With or without ill intention, these types of people can add undue stress to this chaotic time. Many of our widowed clients find it helpful to develop a ready response for when anyone begins to ask invasive questions or give advice. Having a “go-to” reply such as “thank you for the suggestion, I will consider it” will help to alleviate some of these external pressures and set healthy boundaries for healing.
Stage 2: Take Care of Business—General Planning
As time passes and you are no longer living day to day, energy will begin to replace fatigue and clarity will start to overshadow confusion. This is when it’s time to address your more general financial planning needs that you initially postponed.
- Give Your Priorities a Timeline
With your financial planner, make a list of items that need to be addressed Now, Soon, and Later. You may need to adjust your portfolio NOW, but selling your second car can be done LATER. Prioritize your needs to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
- Review Your Tax Strategy
Not only will you need to change your filing status, but you’ll need to explore the tax implications of such changes. Work with your financial advisor and CPA to be sure your tax strategy is appropriate for you.
- Update Your Retirement Plan
What needs to be done from a retirement perspective will depend largely on your own circumstances. Are you already retired? Was your husband retired? Will (and how) his death affect your social security benefit? Will you continue to receive your spouse’s full pension amount, or will it be reduced? These are just a few of the questions you will explore with your financial advisor.
Stage 3: Take Care of More
At this stage, a widow begins to feel empowered and confident to take on her life as a newly single woman. Her life begins to evolve from what has been into what could be. It is often also accompanied by a renewed sense of purpose and hope for the future.
At this juncture, a widow will likely look to “more” than just handling the basics. She may be ready to have a more robust social life, volunteer with her favorite charity, start her own business, or even consider a new relationship.
“On Your Own, But Not Alone”
The grief of widowhood is hard. At a time when you need clarity most, the stress of change upsets your coping and cognitive abilities to seemingly make things worse. Of course, this is a normal response to change, but it doesn’t make the experience any easier.
Before making any decisions or commitments, consider meeting with a financial advisor who understands the emotional and financial complexities of widowhood and can help you move phase by phase through the transition. The right professional can help you organize, take action, and process and prioritize your needs. But most importantly, they can give you the support you need to feel financially secure moving forward.
You may be on your own, but you don’t have to go through this journey alone.
If you or someone you love has recently experienced the loss of a spouse, we encourage you to reach out to us and schedule a call at 1-800-550-3880. We have over 175 years of combined experience helping widows with their financial planning needs and would be happy to see if we can be of service to you, as well.
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