What will motivate you? the news you will be a Widow?

A great column in the New York Times (by Ron Lieber) raises this very important issue. “A shocking death, a financial lesson…

If you find out you will be facing this  type of change, be kind to yourself. There are only a few things you need to do right away (see Steps 1 and 2, below). Right now, we just want you to “get your ducks in a row.”  At this point in time, you may be able to consult your partner to make sure you are completely clear on the wonderful or thoughtful things s/he did for you. There are many others that do not need your immediate attention (see Step 3).  They tend to be the “big decisions.” You are better off taking time and thinking carefully about a lot about these decisions.

We give you the Hot Flash Financial approach, as you would expect.  Step 1 is  finding out how you will be financially secure. We called this compiling your List of Assets, on the site. It may be time to improve your first list so you are really up-to-date. Or you can just take the time to start your own. Step 2 asks you to speak to your partner and get guidance from him/her on important end of life issues. Step 3 encourages you to ask yourself some of the important Hot Flash Financial  questions, develop your answers, and then, when you have had some time to think, begin to  ACT!

If you complete  Steps 1 and 2 early in the game,  you will give yourself a gift.  You will have the luxury of focusing on the person you love, rather than worrying about yourself, and where your next penny is coming from, in the future. If you complete these first steps, you can take the time to grieve.  Then turn to the big decisions.


1. Step #1. Develop a carefully organized file. Find out what you have and where you have it. Also find out your rights. 

Take an afternoon to compile your files. You will need to get a list of your assets AND a list of your sources of income–such as pension payments, retirement income, investment income, social security. If your partner is able, you can cross check your findings and thank her/him for being so kind. Since s/he is human, there are likely to be some things s/he forgot–like changing the beneficiaries on her/his retirement accounts. Or changing the title on the house. If an ex-spouse is sill the beneficiary, or an owner of your home, your partner may  have to sign some paperwork. (That is, if the courts did not require this form of titling, etc.)

You will probably need to set aside an hour or 3  to call or contact institutions during business hours. These include the Human Resource Offices of your partner’s former employer(s). Make sure you keep a well documented list of names of institutions, phone numbers, names of the contact person, date and time of contact, and of course the name of the benefit and the account or policy number associated with each. If you call back later, and you get a slothful person, your earlier record of dates, contact persons etc, will help prompt that sloth to act on your behalf. And, if you can get online access to these accounts, all the better. Just keep a careful record of user names and passwords for your future reference.

Here is a basic list. We will start with immediate sources of  income and move to assets.

Life Insurance:  the policy numbers and company names for Life Insurance (Term and/or Whole Life) policies. Look in your files at home. Try to find the original document with the policy number. Remember, insurance companies may have been merged, etc. So cross check recent files to find the name of the institution that holds it now. Life Insurance is a contract  So the right to the benefits transfer by law (not through probate). If possible, check the name(s) of the  beneficiaries before your partner passes. An ex-wife/partner may be the beneficiary. You may need to ask your partner to sign paperwork to change that.  Talk to an estate attorney if you have one, to see if it makes sense for you to “own” the policy, rather than your partner. And don’t forget that  life insurance may be held through your partner’s place of work. So contact the Human Resources Office for details.

Pension income: Call the Human Resource office of a your husband/partner’s place(s) of work, and past places of work, especially if he/she was a member of a union. S/he may be entitled to pension income. Write this account, the institution that holds it, and the telephone number you will need to reach someone to talk about your rights. Also find out how much you can expect to receive each month and year, now and in the future. And, find out if you have to take the pension in a “lump sum” or not. If you have to take a lump sum, be really careful. That money is supposed to last you 10 or 20 or maybe 30years. Consider using that lump sum to buy an Annuity.

Social Security: Contact Social Security to ask them about your rights. You may be surprised that you have choices. You have a right to Widow’s Benefits. But those are usually less money than your husband’s monthly income.  They may be less than the benefits you could get through your own employment history. So you  may have alternatives that are better. Make careful decisions about the benefits you select: Widows benefits or benefits based on your own employment.

Retirement Accounts: Make sure you know how many retirement accounts your husband/partner has, the institutions that hold them and the account numbers. There is likely to be more than one retirement account. Accounts can be held at every former employer as 401(k)s or 403(b)s, or 457s. There are other types of employer retirement accounts. These include IRAs of all types (Roth IRAs, SEP IRAs, SIMPLE IRAs, and traditional IRAs to name a few). Ask about each and every one. Retirement accounts are contracts, like life insurance policies. Regardless of what it says in the will or trusts, the person named as the beneficiary gets the money. So check the beneficiaries. Sometimes your partner has to call to find out this information. You may have to call from a hospital or hospice bed, with your partner next to you. Your partner may be asked if he or she will allow you to speak for him/her. That will help you both review the issues. You might want to thank your partner for thinking of you and caring for you, by making you beneficiary.

Investment Accounts: Did you and/or your partner hold investments-stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etfs etc.- outside of retirement accounts? These are likely to be held in accounts with large investment houses (Merrill Lynch, Smith Barney, etc.) or smaller ones (Raymond James) and On-Line brokerages. Find out where they are, and how much money is held there. (You will need to find their market value on the date of death, to make transfers and/or clarify tax responsibilities.)

Real Estate: Your home and/or any other real estate you have.

Wills and Trust Lawyer. If your partner has not drawn up a will, or a health care proxy, it may be time to do so. Many people avoid writing wills or developing trusts. So don’t get upset if this was not done. Review the wills and the trusts, making sure that they comply with the laws of your state, and take advantage of any tax breaks you may be allowed.

Step 2. If you have not done so, but have the time, draft and sign a living will, and a power of attorney. These legal documents function like a will. They give your partner the ability to clarify (in writing) important issues and give guidance about the next steps you should take.  A living will, also called an advanced care directive, allows your partner to give written instructions about her/his treatment and end of life care if/and when s/he can no longer make decisions because of incapacity or illness. Click on the site Five Wishes to get more information about this type of document. A power of attorney or health care proxy allows your partner to appoint a specific individual to make these decisions for her/him.

Step 3. Don’t make any big decisions quickly. Take your time. Mourn and Grieve. As the first year passes, you will have a better understanding of the kinds of decisions you will want (and may need) to make. Make your decisions after thinking things through carefully. What we mean is–take time.

Think about the TRADE-OFFs that Hot Flash Financial talks about so much.

One big decision: where do you want to live? A house is probably the biggest expense you will have in the future. What do you really, really want to do about your home? If you sell your home now and get the money that was previously tied up in equity, that may help you have a higher income. Nevertheless, you will have to decide where you will live? This  decision is best made while considering your key relationships. Will you rupture ties with your friends and family? What about your doctors and other support groups? Can you buy a place that is a lot smaller in the same community, yet costs a lot less? Then you can pay cash for your new place, but have some cash left over (from the equity) to use for income. Downsizing has its positive value, especially if you reduce your monthly costs.

Another big decision: where and how to you want to be a widow? Many women say that being a widow changes your social life. And that is just the time when you need your friends the most! Sometimes parties are limited to couples. You had not noticed that before, but it might become more important as the first year progresses.  You need time to think about this.

Another big decision: what to do about your children, or in some cases, “his” children. Don’t let children rush you into making decisions. Remember you have a right to grieve. And you need time to get your life in order. Find out if your partner’s will and/or trust stipulates that the money goes to the children AFTER PROVIDING SUPPORT FOR YOU THROUGH OUT YOUR LIFE, that is what it says. The children should know, and can be reminded of that legal fact and your partner’s wishes.  You have to retain your dignity and independence. (If you have a sense of humor, tell them that you will have to move in with one of the children or step children and her/his spouse if the money runs out. And they will have to help with your medical expenses and care for about 10 or more years. Would they like that? Because that will happen if you give them all the money.) They will have to wait for their inheritance. After all, you did.

A more complete list of recommendations for widows can be found at  WISER, among other sites.