Jul 12, 2021

Our Best Money Advice for New Widows

Article by Ellevest

Money decisions can be stressful no matter what, but this is a special kind of uncertainty. One study found that more than half of people who lost a spouse had no plan in place for what they’d do if that happened. And only 14% of women in that study had been making financial decisions by themselves before their partner’s death. So if that’s you, you aren’t alone.

We’ve got you. And you’ve got this. Here’s a list of steps to help you get through the short-term stress of financial uncertainty and back on track for the long term.

Steps to take now

Lean on your people for support

Now is a time to take care of you. You’re allowed to feel overwhelmed. So when that happens, don’t be afraid to ask for or accept help. Your people — family, close friends, confidants — are there for you.

But also … there’s help, and then there’s unsolicited advice. A lot of well-meaning people might have a lot of thoughts on what you should do next — keep the house, sell the house, go back to work, take more time off, and so on and so forth. We’re here to say that it’s OK to thank them politely for their advice … and then do whatever feels right to you.

Focus on what needs to be done now

Getting the most pressing tasks of the way ASAP can be super helpful — not only for the logistics of your day-to-day life, but also for your stress levels.

First, of course, are funeral arrangements — and funding. (And it really sucks that the most urgent thing on this list is also probably the most emotionally difficult one.) But once you’ve made it through that process, you’ll want to turn your attention to keeping the lights on — literally. Go back through your and your partner’s bank and credit card statements to see if there are any bills not set to auto-pay that you’ll need to take care of.

While you’re at it, now’s a good time to pinpoint the things that you can cancel and stop paying: your partner’s gym memberships, magazine subscriptions, cell phone plan, etc. Also, call their credit card and loan providers to let them know they’ve passed — this can help prevent identity fraud and keep you from missing any random accidental charges (plus, certain loans might not have to be paid back).

Don’t stress about life insurance

If your partner had a life insurance policy, you’ll have to eventually decide what to do with the survivor benefit. Should you pay off debt? Help your kids go to college? Put it toward your retirement? Invest it and live on it as income?

It’s a big decision, but you don’t have to decide just yet. Today is about whatever you need right now, so long-term financial plans can wait. If you aren’t sure what to do with the life insurance money, deposit it into a savings account for now. Then, later, find someone (a professional, that is) to talk to about the decision — it’s a big one, and you shouldn’t have to make it on your own.

Steps to take later

Go through your partner’s accounts

Once things have settled down a little bit, it’ll be time to collect as much info as you can on your partner’s bank accounts, investment portfolio, insurance policies, loans and credit cards, etc. Ask about survivor benefits, closing accounts, and transferring assets. (It might help at this point if you have copies of the death certificate available.)

This might take a lot of time (and phone calls) if you’re missing key details like login credentials, which companies your partner used, or even what kinds of accounts they had (and how many). Keep an eye on the mail for statements or other documents so that you can call any companies you might have missed.

Also, you’ll want to take a survey of your partner’s “digital estate” — things like photos, social media accounts, and music. Now might be a good time to work your way through contacting each platform to retrieve assets and either change the settings or close out the accounts — per your partner’s wishes, if they told you, or as you see fit if they didn’t.

Make your own list and update your legal docs

If you just went through the process of tracking down a bunch of accounts for your partner’s assets, you’ll believe us when we say that having a list of your own is one of the greatest gifts you can leave behind for your loved ones. And now, when you’ve just gone through and updated everything, is an ideal time to make it. Include login credentials, phone numbers to call, and any other important info.

Also, if the beneficiary on your bank and retirement accounts was your husband, it’s good to get that updated.

Speaking of updating beneficiaries, update any estate planning documents you have, like a will, power of attorney, the title on the house, etc. (And if you don’t have those yet, we recommend working with an attorney to get them drafted soon.)

Also make or update your own plan for your digital estate so that your survivors are able to access your social media, music, and photo accounts to retrieve assets and freeze or close them as you like.

Take a look at your tax withholdings

After everything you’re going through now, the last thing you’re going to need is a surprise at tax time. So now’s a good opportunity to ask a tax pro (even if it’s just a one-time session) if they think you should adjust your withholdings or plan for any special estate taxes that might crop up. Then you can make a plan if you’re going to have to pay more than you thought.

Consider working with a financial planner

There are a lot of moving pieces in your life right now, which can be overwhelming and make it hard to see the big money picture. That’s where a financial planner can really help. All the to-dos that come after this section are things they can help you work through. (Btw, we happen to know some great ones.)

Get your financial feet back under you

Losing your partner is one of the most disruptive things that can happen to your life — but getting yourself back to a place of (relative) financial stability is super helpful. Here are the basics:

Re-evaluate your spending plan

Chances are that you just lost your partner’s income stream. So now’s a good time to figure out what your everyday money is going to look like going forward — what’s coming in, what’s going out, and how you’re going to divvy up your spending. (Here’s some advice on that.)

Tackle debt

If your partner had debt of their own, the type of debt matters when it comes to whether or not you’ll be responsible for paying it after they’ve passed. In most cases, as long as you didn’t co-sign on the debt or sign as a joint credit card holder, you wouldn’t be liable. (If you were just an authorized user on a credit card, you wouldn’t usually be liable.) In community property states, though, you’d be equally responsible for the debt if it was acquired while you were married.

Also, federal student loans are discharged if someone passes away. With private student loans, that isn’t guaranteed. Call any private loan providers to ask them about their terms.

Once you’ve figured out how much debt you’re looking at, it’s time to make a plan to tackle it — because high interest rates on debt are the kryptonite to your financial future. Here’s our advice about what counts as “high-interest debt,” and here’s our advice to help you make a plan to pay it off.

Build or buffer your emergency fund

Now, with the loss of your partner’s income and so many things up in the air, having an emergency fund is even more urgent. We typically recommend saving up three to six months’ worth of take-home pay for rainy days — and the more uncertain your financial situation is, the more you should have saved up. So if you don’t have an emergency fund, we urge you to start one. And if you do have one, it might be good to make it a little bigger.

Tackling these three steps might mean negotiating a raise or thinking about working with a coach. If you’ll be re-entering the workforce, Après and iRelaunch are both great resources for women in that situation.

Think about your house

If you and your partner owned a home, one of the biggest long-term choices you’ll face is whether to stay in the house. Will the mortgage, property taxes, etc. still work with your budget? If not, moving could help you save on living costs, and also get you closer to your support network. That might mean renting if it’s the right money move for you, or buying a new house.

If you’re thinking of selling, this is an especially good thing to chat through with a financial planner and a tax pro. There are tax benefits you might be eligible for as a widow that would expire two years after your partner passed.

Understand Social Security benefits

There are a lot of rules when it comes to Social Security, and everyone’s situation is different, so this is another thing to talk to a pro about. You might be entitled to a monthly check if you’re 60 or older, have a young dependent, or meet some other criteria. There’s also a one-time $255 survivor benefit … which isn’t really enough to help, like, at all, but hey — money is money.

Here’s the Social Security Administration’s guide to survivor benefits for more info.

Look at your own life insurance

Losing your partner will probably affect how much life insurance you need yourself. If you don’t have any dependents, you might not need as much as you did before. If you have kids, you might need more. Talk to a financial planner or insurance agent for some help figuring out what amount is right for you.

Retirement accounts and long-term planning

And finally, it’s time to reconfigure your long-term financial plan.

First: retirement. If your partner had a pension or retirement accounts, you’ll want to understand how they work and what that means for you. If your partner had already started making withdrawals, you might need to continue those. Depending on the account, you might be able to roll their assets over into your accounts. We recommend asking a financial planner for help wading through this info, or else calling your partner’s account providers to ask them for all the details you’ll need.

Then, once you’ve figured out where you stand with retirement, you can begin the process of figuring out how your future needs have changed and whether you’re still on track to retire with enough.

And then there are your other goals — which have probably changed, maybe quite a bit. That might mean moving if you need or want to, sending your children to college (on one parent’s income), building up your wealth, or whatever it is. Having a long-term financial plan is key to these goals.

Carrying on when your partner’s gone is never going to be easy. But getting your money on track can make a huge dent in the stress and uncertainty you’re facing. And remember: You can do this, and we’re here for you.

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