Tips for Widows: How to Sort Through the Chaos After the Death of a Spouse

Financial Advice for Widows: 6 Tips

The loss of a spouse can be crippling—emotionally, physically, spiritually, socially, and equally important, financially. A recent survey found that 78% of widows said that losing their spouse was the single hardest thing that they have been through and the top financial challenges included adjusting to a loss in income and navigating paperwork.¹  “When life changes, money changes and when money changes, life changes.”2 The reality is that personal and financial well-being are intricately tied together, so a life-changing event like widowhood has the potential to create stress with potential long-term consequences.

The good news is that with resilience and a strong support system, you can use your experience to heal and move forward with confidence and a new sense of purpose.  And if you are like many widows, you will find that as you successfully address the financial tasks, you will also move forward emotionally. How and where do you begin your journey towards personal and financial well-being?

Here are six tips to help you balance both:

  1. Take your time. It is not unusual for new widows to feel completely overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of decisions that require their attention.   Some widows, in a desire to accomplish all their tasks so that they can “get back to their lives”, run through their checklist as if they had only five minutes left before the grocery store closed on the Eve of Thanksgiving.   But you do not have to be in a hurry.  The law allows you four years to settle an estate and you may need to address other items before you turn to this task. Updating your own will also is not a pressing matter.  Assuming you had wills in place before your spouse passed, those existing documents should contain provisions for exactly this kind of contingency.  Another reason that widows report for rushing through the checklist is due to feeling that their own health and well-being are threatened or at risk. In this case, it may be a better option to see your physician than the estate planner.  Widows have often deferred matters of their own health while caring for their spouses, so a check-up may be a better action than attempting the new “to do” list.  In the early stages of grief, getting a handle on “where you are” is more important than knowing “where you’re going”.  Like many decisions with long-term consequences, updating your own estate documents is typically best left until you have had a better chance to more fully process your loss.)
  2. Identify your immediate needs and leave the rest for later. Under normal circumstances, our mental energy is limited.  You can think of it as a pie that gets sliced up for all life’s different functions including making decisions, resisting temptations, learning new things, and doing household chores, to name a few.  What happens when you experience a traumatic event like the loss of your spouse? Financial neuropsychologist and executive coach, Dr. Moira Somers, describes it this way: “Unfortunately, you are not automatically handed a bigger pie; instead you just have to carve up the existing pie differently.”3  When the slice of your pie directed towards handling pain and stress becomes larger, this can quickly lead to mental depletion.    
  3. Prioritize & Organize. To use your energy effectively, start with a list everything that is keeping you up at night and then narrow it down to the items that are most urgent and important.  Check out this Financial Priorities tool for help in developing clarity around your wants, needs and goals, as well as a place to keep a list of the items that you need to table for later.  For maximum use of your energy, try to only work on one priority at a time, do so when your energy level is at its highest, and limit the amount of time you spend each day.  You may discover that the most important items on your list do not feel like the most urgent.  Joy D. Kirsch, CFP, CeFT and the founder of Merit’s TruWealth for Widows initiative, sites an example of a widow who was having trouble focusing on completing her tax return by the IRS deadline.  After further discussion, the widow admitted she couldn’t address taxes because she was fixated on what to do with her husband’s ashes.  Kirsch realized the taxes would need to wait until this issue was addressed.  “Hyper focusing on a particular item is a common characteristic of grief.  We can help a widow move from distress to eustress if we address her urgent items first rather than placing our own priorities upon her.”
  4. Plan for the short-term finances. Even if you have plenty of cash on hand, you will want to confirm that it can replenish itself at a rate that is at least as high as the drain of your expenses.  As you look back at your checkbook and credit card statements to get a handle on your expenses, don’t forget to consider those that happen less frequently than monthly, like mortgage insurance, property taxes, and property insurance.   If you have a shortfall, you will need to determine how to best cover it.  Income and principal from savings accounts, life insurance proceeds, and investments call to fill this void and choosing the best assets to use depends on returns, risk, and tax consequences.  For example, taking the same amount of money out of an IRA or 401k will create more taxes than pulling from taxable investments that received a step-up in basis after the death of your spouse.  A careful review of your cash flow is in order and financial professionals who specialize in widows suggest that knowing how you’re going to cover your cash flow shortfall for a three-year period is a good rule of thumb as you work through the consequences of the loss.  “A lot of personal change will happen over the next three years and widows need to build liquidity to work through those changes without additional financial concerns,” says Bret Hackett, CFP® and Merit Widow Ambassador.  With this safety net in place, you can more confidently create and implement a financial plan that will address the longer term.
  5. Ask for Help.  In the early days and months following your loss, you may find it harder than ever to concentrate and retain information.  Functional MRI scans show that the blood flows away from the cognitive functions of a grieving brain and into the emotional and survival areas.  Memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and fractured focus are not uncommon for the widow as she takes stock of her new situation.  Building a professional team of advisors who are trained in the art and science of life changes can bring an objective and independent perspective, and bringing in a friend or loved one to act as another set of ears and eyes in the early weeks and months, and delaying all decisions that are not critical, is highly recommended.  
  6. Take Time Out.  Although Step 2 recommended to “leave the rest for later,” being widowed can be exhausting and it is important to stop and take a literal rest.  Of course, you can take a nap, but you can also consider “active resting” after you’ve finished working on an item that depletes your energy. Whether it is getting out into nature for fresh air and exercise, writing in your journal, or meditating, your body and mind need time to rejuvenate as you move through this stressful period.  In addition to these daily practices, it is recommended to take time away from your major tasks to be still and discover the gifts that a transition can bring.  Neuropsychologist Somers suggests that taking a “voluntary, pre-emptive and proactive” time out will allow you to gain insights and create better outcomes as you journey to the new you of your crafting.  It is in this stillness that you will discover the real purpose of your journey.

1 Survey of widows sponsored by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave. Feb 2018

2 Susan Bradley,

3 Moira Somers, Ph.D., Advice that Sticks