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Women: Moving Forward Financially After the Loss of a Spouse

By Laurie Haelen

The loss of a spouse can often be a devastating, life-changing event. Due to longer life expectancies, women are more likely to experience this than men. 

Becoming a widow at any age can be one of the most difficult challenges a woman must face. Not only is there the emotional loss of a spouse, but also the task of handling everything — including all the finances — without the help of a spouse. Even if you’ve always handled your family’s finances, the number of financial and legal matters that have to be settled in the weeks and months following your loved one’s death can be overwhelming.

Before you start handling the financial end of things, though, make sure to consider your own needs. The period following the death of a spouse can be a blur of emotions, including shock, sadness, despair, anger, denial. It’s important to allow yourself the freedom to feel however you want to feel.

Facing your loss can ultimately help you as you work to adapt to the new conditions of your life, so that in time you can create something new. This period of adjustment, which can last for several years, is often a time of profound self-discovery for women, who may find themselves examining issues of identity, life meaning and aging. During this time, it’s important to surround yourself with people you trust — family, friends, support groups, professionals — who can offer support and advice that’s in your best interest.

There are several financial tasks that must be done in the weeks and months after a spouse’s death. If some matters are too overwhelming to tackle alone, don’t hesitate to ask family, friends or even your attorney for help.

Locate important documents and financial records.

In order to settle your spouse›s estate, you’ll need to locate a number of important documents. These include your spouse’s will and other estate planning documents (e.g., trust), insurance policies, bank and brokerage statements, stock and bond certificates, deeds, Social Security number, birth and marriage certificates and certified copies of the death certificate.

Set up a communications tracking and filing system.

To help keep track of all the details, set up a system to record incoming and outgoing calls and mail. Make a list of the names and phone numbers of the people and organizations you’re dealing with and post it in a central location. Be sure to create a good filing system to help you keep track of the many documents you will accumulate in the process.

Seek professional advice to settle the estate and file tax returns. 

Getting expert help from an attorney, accountant or financial and tax professional can be invaluable during this stressful time. Consider bringing a family member or friend with you to meetings so you will have an extra pair of eyes and ears to process information.

An attorney can help you review your spouse’s will and other estate planning documents and start estate settlement procedures. If you are named executor in the will (or if you are appointed as the personal representative), you will be responsible for carrying out the terms of the will and settling the estate. You can also choose to delegate this responsibility, or pay an attorney to share the work to make it easier for you. 

A tax professional can help you file certain federal and state tax returns that may be due. A financial professional can help you by conducting a comprehensive review of your financial situation and identifying any retirement and survivor benefits that may be available to you.

Apply for benefits. 

You’ll need to contact several institutions for information on how you can file for benefits.

Life insurance: Life insurance benefits are not automatic; you have to file a claim for them. This should be one of the first things you do. Ask your insurance agent to begin filing a claim (if you don’t have an agent, contact the company directly). Most claims take only a few days to process.

Social Security Administration (SSA): Contact the SSA to see if you or your dependent children are eligible to file a claim for retirement, survivor or death benefits.

Employers: Contact your spouse’s most recent and past employers to find out if you are eligible for any company benefits. 

Update account names. 

You may need to contact financial institutions to change account names and/or update contact information.

Evaluate short-term expenses. 

You may have immediate expenses to take care of, such as funeral costs or outstanding debts your spouse may have incurred. If you’re waiting for insurance proceeds or estate settlement money, you can use credit cards for certain expenses or you can try to negotiate with creditors to allow you to postpone payment for 30 days or more, if necessary. 

— Avoid hasty decisions. For discretionary financial decisions, go at your own pace, not someone else’s. For example, don’t commit to move from your current home until you can make a decision based on reason instead of emotion. Find out where you stand financially before you make any large purchases, sell property or loan money to others.

After the initial legal and financial matters related to your spouse’s death are taken care of, you’ll enter a transition phase when you’ll be adjusting to your new financial circumstances. As you navigate this terrain, you might find it helpful to work with a financial professional who can help you with the steps you need to take to ensure a smooth transition.

As you move forward with your life, remember that at times it may be two steps forward and one step back. Take comfort in the fact that you are doing the best you can to make the best decisions — financial and otherwise — for yourself and your family.

Laurie Haelen, AIF (accredited investment fiduciary), is senior vice president, manager of investment and financial planning solutions, CNB Wealth Management, Canandaigua National Bank & Trust Company. She can be reached at 585-419-0670, ext. 41970 or by email at