By Dana Ragiel
We all know women who find themselves suddenly single. It could be the death of a spouse, divorce or the sudden incapacitation of the husband to a stroke or an accident. In this post, I would like to focus on three women I have helped over the past five years who found themselves widowed. Two in their fifties and the other at age 72. It is important to note that in each of these cases their husbands were close in age to my clients when they passed. Two had cancer and one had a sudden fatal heart attack. None of these women were working at the time they lost their husbands, nor did they have minor children or other dependents to support.
Even if it is cancer and there is time after the doctor tells you and your husband to “get your affairs in order”, there is the shock, the despair, the confusion and helplessness. Your focus is care giving to your husband. Making him comfortable. Dealing with the doctors, the follow up and treatment. You know you will soon become the head of household and all that entails compounded by knowing that you will be alone as head of household at a time of great grief and stress.
It is important to identify your support group – family, friends, clergy or grief support groups. We focus here mostly on financial aspects, yet your mental well-being is just as important. Take actions early to help relieve the day-to day worry of keeping a roof over your head and maintaining a lifestyle. Learn about why a trusted advisor, preferably a fiduciary, can be a valuable asset during this time.
In many marriages, there is a division of labor, in terms of money and house matters. One, usually the husband, primarily generates the income, handles the investment accounts, makes the insurance payments, talks to the attorney and most importantly has his arms around the total cost of maintaining your home and the related taxes. Meanwhile, the wife is often dealing with maintaining a primary residence and perhaps a secondary home. Handling the food, car repairs, weekly house maintenance but where are the insurance policies? Where are the investment accounts held? Where are the wills and trust documents. What about a plan for generating retirement income?
This is the time you need a trusted family advisor. Preferably, you are engaged with an advisor that understands your situation and that you like to work with in advance of a critical life event. This advisor will be a sounding board that help you make decisions. Someone who can guide you through the process. I found that with every newly widowed or soon to be widowed client each had different issues, but all involved money and budgeting. My years of experience have exposed me to the issues, the dangers, and the wrong decisions made in haste.
Trusted family advisors include an attorney, accountant and financial advisor. However, quite often widows turn to family members to help them make decisions. Friends and family usually mean well, but you need a professional to make sure that you are taking all the necessary actions to budget, access accounts and put a financial plan in place for after your spouse’s passing.
Below are examples of three women I have advised through the process. Regardless of their fears, we needed to identify the monthly bills, determining their monthly “run rate” to maintain their current life style followed an income analysis and a plan for income for the rest of their lives. Note that the names below have been changed for privacy reasons.
Case 1 - Why you need to get your arms around the finances before death – Mary was widowed at age 50 after her husband passed from brain cancer, which he fought for two years. He had said the affairs were in order. He used an attorney she had never met. She did not know their CPA. Mary focused on his care and to be honest, she thought there were no money worries. The house, which she thought was owned outright, was not in both their names but in the husband’s. It turned out there was still a first mortgage on the home, as well as home equity line of credit. Back property taxes were owed. The cars were leased. The money from the home equity line was used to fuel their lifestyle. He handled all the money. She was a traditional stay at home wife. Her father and brother stepped in to help, but after opening some of the mail it was clear they needed to put a financial plan in place. We worked on her monthly cash flow needs for maintaining the home and compiled a list of all outstanding debts. She really didn’t need an attorney initially. She needed a financial advisor with a sympathetic ear to reassure her while making immediate changes. I took action with her family, developing a plan to pay off the debt, list the house for sale and set out a realistic retirement income plan.
Case 2 – The importance of a trusted advisor – Barbara was widowed at age 56 when her husband was 54. He had battled cancer for eight months while she focused on his care and maximizing her remaining time with him. Her husband had hired a financial advisor who turned out to be a fraud. It was not her husband’s fault as he was taken by the scam along with many others. But, only he had met with the one advisor. No other advisors were interviewed and Barbara was not included in the advisor’s selection or on-going meetings. Her husband entrusted the now committed felon with their life savings Barbara would need to live on. This is an extreme example, but more common than you might think. She lost in excess of $2.0 million. It took several years for the fraud to be exposed. The advisor is headed to jail, but Barbara’s financial situation is now in doubt.
Financial Advisor selection should be a team effort between the husband and wife. Eventually, only one of you will be working with the advisor and a strong relationship is important. In the majority of cases, this affects the woman due to longer life expectancy and being younger in the relationship.
Case 3 - Why it makes sense to have an estate plan in place before something happens – Julia was 72 when she lost her 74 year old husband to a sudden fatal heart attack. This was a second marriage for both after previous divorces. Julia had learned from her divorce at age 35 when left with two children to support. She knew she needed a plan. I met her after she remarried and was retired. She sat down with me to discuss their assets. The house. The taxes. A financial strategy. At the same time, she and her husband met with a trust and estate attorney who worked with my financial planning team.
Her grief was immediate and acute as he died suddenly. However, at least she had the peace-of-mind of not needing to make drastic changes, search for a financial advisor, and deal with other details, a time of great grieving and stress
Summary – The differences between the first two cases and the third are striking. The passing of a spouse or any loved one is hard enough to deal with. Worry over finances should not be part of the grieving process. Planning ahead with both spouses being involved and relying on a trusted financial advisor as well as other professionals can go a long way toward easing the worry and pain caused by critical financial events.
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