Half of a Whole: When You Lose a Spouse

By Mira Ma, CFP®, RFC®

Whether it is sudden and unexpected or after a lengthy ordeal, nothing can prepare you for losing your spouse. Grief and mourning affect each of us uniquely, but all widows and widowers share a painful dilemma: On the one hand, the world seems to demand rapid response to a barrage of critical questions—financial and otherwise. On the other hand, it is usually a terrible time to be making big decisions, especially if they really can wait.

Here are some helpful handholds to hang on to if you have been recently widowed (or you know someone who has), plus pre-emptive steps to take if you are reading this in happier times.

If You Have Just Been Widowed …

Don’t decide anything you do not have to—especially about your finances. This may seem like odd advice from a financial advisor. Our usual role is to help people make sound money decisions and get on with their lives. However, when you are experiencing grief, it is not just an emotion. It is a biological process affecting your ability to make rational decisions regarding your financial interests. Even small choices can feel overwhelming, let alone big ones. That is why our advice at this time is to put off anything that can wait.

By the way, most financial decisions are not as urgent as they might seem. This brings us to our next point. Remember, service providers, friends, and family (who may also be grieving) may mean well. But their sense of urgency—and your own—may be off-kilter. Unless all heck will break loose if you fail to act, give yourself a break and assume most financial decisions can wait.

Create the space to focus on matters that actually are urgent. Putting long-term plans on hold also helps create space to take care of the essentials, such as making funeral arrangements, managing immediate expenses, and taking care of yourself and your dependents. Do make sure you have enough cash flow available to make daily purchases and pay your bills so that these do not become a source of stress.

Gather imminently critical paperwork, such as any pre-planned funeral arrangements, and multiple copies of the death certificate. It is also best to ensure that your and your children’s health care coverage remains in place. Let everything else slide for a little while and/or …

Lean on others, even if you don’t usually. You do not have to go it alone. For practical and emotional support, turn to friends, family, clergy, and similar relationships. For financial and legal paperwork, contact professionals such as your financial advisor, CPA, and insurance agent. Focus on relationships that help relieve your burden, and avoid those that burn up your limited energy. Be cautious about forming new relationships at this time; unfortunately, seemingly sympathetic con artists prey on those whose defenses are down.

After a Little Time Has Passed …

Assess where you are at. Once you feel ready to take on some of the mid- and long-range logistics, slow and steady remain the ways to go. It can be helpful and cleansing to start by gathering up your scattered resources. Wills and trusts, insurance policies, financial statements, personal identification, mortgages, retirement benefits, safety deposit box contents, business paperwork, military service records, club memberships—whether on paper or online, take stock of what you have.

Reach out. Continue reaching out to others to address your evolving needs. Turn to your financial advisor for assistance in organizing your investment accounts, shifting ownerships as needed, closing or consolidating unnecessary ones, and sorting through your spouse’s retirement and work benefits. Contact your spouse’s employers to learn more. Work with a lawyer for settling the estate. Meet with an insurance specialist to revisit your health care coverage. Speak with your accountant about the necessary tax filings. Contact creditors about resolving any outstanding debts. Firm up your banking and bill-payment routines.

Shift your focus outward. When it comes to lifetime transitions, each of us is on our own schedule. But eventually, the time will come when you are ready to circle back to those larger decisions you put on hold. Again, do not go it alone. Your financial advisor can help you take a fresh look at your finances—your earning, saving, investing, and spending plans. You also may start to look at your larger wealth interests, such as your will, trusts, and insurance coverage. Whether you determine everything is fine or adjustments are warranted, wait until you are at a place in which you can make these sorts of decisions deliberately instead of in haste.

Pre-planning Is an Act of Love …

If you are reading this piece during happier times, we cannot emphasize enough how important it is to plan for when one or both of you pass away. Planning can simplify or even eliminate some of the most agonizing decisions that surviving family members must face during one of the worst times in their lives. As such, your wills, trusts, powers of attorney, living wills (advance directives) and pre-planned funeral arrangements may be among the most loving gifts you can give one another as a couple, especially if you have dependent children. If these key estate planning materials are not yet in place, there is no better day than today to give each other the gift of advance planning.

How else can we help? When you are ready to talk, please know we will be here to listen.