Widowhood: An Inconvenient Reality

Written by V. Raymond Ferrara, CFP®

On June 1, 2021

Widowhood:  An Inconvenient Reality

A terrifying statistic – 80% of men will die married and 80% of women will die single.*  Take a moment to ponder that statistic.  As you think about those percentages, you may easily conclude that dying single is predominately a women’s experience.  While the statistic may seem like an abstract concept, it, unfortunately, continues to become a reality as the ProVise team once again started working with several recently widowed women.

In marriage, widowhood is likely an eventuality.  Would you believe the median age for widowhood is 59.4 years?  Several very public widows pop into my mind like journalist Katie Couric, Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and Vanessa Bryant who lost her husband, Kobe Bryant, and daughter in a tragic helicopter crash.  Widowhood may expand for years and even decades where women must pick up the financial pieces of their lives.

Because widowhood is an uncomfortable subject, many couples do not address this issue.  Many couples neglect the issue of widowhood for many understandable reasons but as financial planners at ProVise we view it as a fundamental part of planning for your financial future. 

Where do you start?  We recommend taking some simple steps. 

  1. As a couple, who takes the lead in your financial and investment matters?  If you are a woman who only takes a minimal interest in your financial matters, get involved by setting up a spousal meeting monthly or even quarterly.
  2. With your spouse, take inventory of all your assets and create a comprehensive list. Ask yourself the following questions:
    1. What do we have?
    2. Where is it held?
    3. How do I access it?
    4. Who is the owner?

So let’s take an easy example and assume you own a home.  Whose name(s) are on the title?  Do you have a mortgage on the property? If so, what bank holds the mortgage?  How do you pay the mortgage via check or automatic debit?  Do you get statements via an online account or through the mail?  Do you need a password and security questions to access the account online?

As you can see from this list of questions, it is so important to go through this process with all your assets.  Some of your assets like your retirement account will only be in one individual’s name so it becomes critical for the surviving spouse to know the account number and who to contact. 

Create a system that each spouse understands and can access. Would you work best with a binder system with your insurance policies, tax returns, bank account and investment account statements at your fingertips or do you prefer to store information online?  Remember to keep a list of usernames and passwords to all online accounts and that this information should be stored securely. 

  1. It is imperative that you have estate planning documents.  Do you have a “last living will and testament?”  Work with an attorney to determine what you and your spouse need.  If you do not have a will, your surviving spouse will need to take additional steps to liquidate or transfer any assets owned solely in your name.  If you die without a will, then the laws of your state will determine who inherits.
  2. Both spouses should have a frank discussion about what sources of income will exist to support the surviving spouse? If you each collect Social Security benefits, upon the death of a spouse, you will go from two checks to one check.  If your spouse has a pension, will you receive any his benefits upon his death?

As you tell from the checklist above, a great deal of time and preparation goes into financial planning.  Our ProVise team helps develop a plan to handle the issues that must be addressed upon the death of a spouse as well as for the long-term security of the surviving spouse.  Though we can never be completely ready for the death of a loved one, by giving these matters attention during your lifetimes, we can help the surviving spouse move through the stages of grief to growth and ultimately to grace.

*“Widows’ Voices:  The Value of Financial Planning”  by Kathleen M. Rehl, Carolyn C. Moor, Linda Y. Leitz and John E. Grable.  Published in the Journal of Financial Service Professionals, January 2016.  

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