Investment Strategies

Making a new widow's life easier

The human element should be considered before developing a detailed financial plan

Feb 4, 2008 @ 12:01 am

By Kathleen M. Rehl

When a husband dies, fear and uncertainty await the widow. Yet, this agonizing time is when crucial actions are taken. Many financial and legal issues that surround the death of a spouse will not wait until the new widow feels stronger. But where should she start?

I speak from personal knowledge. As a widow myself, I wasn't prepared for what besieged me on so many fronts. Now I understand how they feel, and my heart goes out to those women.

Estimates suggest that 80% to 90% of all women will become the sole financial decision maker for their households. For many, this will happen through the death of their husbands. Today, around 90% of women outlive their spouses and the average age of a widow in the United States is 56.

As professional advisers, we can provide important support for a widow. But before we discuss actual financial planning, there are human elements that should be considered:

It's important for you to listen, really listen. Listening helps you guide her in making appropriate decisions. Begin by asking, "What can I do to help?" rather than just telling her what to do.

Be patient with your client. She may feel hopeless and helpless. Make your suggestions simple and easy to comprehend. Be sure to avoid jargon. When you provide information in writing, restrict the length to a one-page summary instead of a volume of information.

Remember that she's living life one day at a time right now. Nothing feels normal. Stick with short-term goals rather than overwhelming a widow with long-range projections.

And the best advice a widow can receive is to wait a year before making major decisions. I encourage widows not to rush; it's important to take time with the big decisions.

I tell them, "You are going through a grieving process, and your head may not be clear right now. You might even think you're going crazy because you can't remember where you put your car keys, or you don't recall an easy phone number. You may forget to eat or you may not want to eat. Sleep can be difficult, at least for a while. All this can affect your thinking, as well as your physical and emotional condition."

Know that a widow is in a vulnerable state following her husband's death. I don't hesitate to remind my widowed clients to be wary of un-scrupulous individuals who may view them as an "easy target."

Here are the initial actions with which I assist new widows:

Planning a memorial or funeral service and determining where the funds to pay for it will come from.

Meeting with the attorney who will settle the estate. Sometimes it may be necessary to accompany a new widow to this session.

Organizing pertinent documents and focusing on immediate issues, such as cash flow.

Applying for death benefits. Contact insurance companies, the Social Security Administration, the human re-sources department where the spouse was employed, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and if applicable, fraternal and professional organizations.

I advise widows to keep a larger-than-usual cash balance on hand, with at least six months' living expenses and money for other bills. I've often found that new widows have a fear of becoming a "bag lady," regardless of the state of their finances.

Create a to-do list. Review this list each time you meet with her.

Make sure the widow has medical insurance. Update a listing of assets and liabilities and notify the auto and homeowner's insurance agents about her husband's death.

Change title and beneficiaries on the residence, investments, vehicles and safe deposit boxes.

Don't remove the husband's name from a joint checking account immediately. Some checks will continue to arrive in his name.

I also encourage widows to consider making a charitable gift in memory of their husband. Surprisingly, practicing gratitude during this time of grief can be uplifting.

If an estate is complex, it can take as long as a year to settle. It's not necessary to pay all bills immediately, because most creditors don't expect payment until after the estate is settled.

At an appropriate time after the spouse's death, I introduce a paper-and-pencil exercise to the widow that I call "Enhance My Life." It involves talking through and writing down on paper the widow's ideas for her future.

Kathleen M. Rehl, founder of Land O'Lakes, Fla.-based Rehl Financial Advisors, is a member of the Alliance of Cambridge Advisors in Highland, Mich. She specializes in financial planning for clergy, women, widows, and those with generous spirits.

For archived columns, go to investmentnews.com/investmentstrategies.

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