She thought they’d have one more Christmas together. Yet a few days before the holiday, Tari Lee Sykes’s husband, Charles Jeremy Sykes, died after battling a rare lung disease for years. He’d never get to open the wrapped presents below their glistening tree.
On top of her grief from losing her partner was financial panic.
“For the first few months, you’re just going through all the paperwork,” said Lee Sykes, 65, who teaches part-time. “But I didn’t know if there was going to be enough to live on.”
From navigating Social Security benefits to locating all of a partner’s assets, new widows are hit with a slew of tasks amid their mourning.
“There is so much to do, and it can be confusing to figure out what you should do first,” said Natalie Colley, a certified financial planner and lead advisor at Francis Financial in Manhattan.
“As tempting as it may be to shut down and retreat during this intense and painful time, this moment is important as certain decisions about your finances will either secure or jeopardize your financial future.”
After the loss of your husband, Colley recommends trying to get ahold of all his financial records.
“Checking your spouse’s wallet or filing cabinets is an excellent way to create a list of credit cards and debit cards,” Colley said. “You will also need to start gathering copies of statements for bank accounts, credit cards, outstanding mortgages and loans, brokerage accounts, pensions and retirement accounts.”
On top of everything else they’re battling, widows increasingly find that their deceased husband has become a victim of fraud, Colley added. A few smart moves can reduce your risk of this occurring.
“Once your husband dies, there is a lag time before financial institutions, credit reporting bureaus, and government entities have updated their files,” Colley said. “Identity thieves use this as their window of opportunity to strike.”
As a result, she recommends leaving out any personal information in your husband’s obituary and sending his death certificate to financial institutions, credit agencies and the IRS as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, other moves should be delayed, said CFP Kathleen M. Rehl, author of Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows. In fact, the period right after the death of your husband often should be a “decision-free zone,” Rehl said.
“During the initial reality shock period, only critical financial triage actions are necessary,” Rehl said. That’s because investment choices made during this time, she added, aren’t always the wisest.
New widows are often approached by family members with requests for money and people selling certain products. Learning how to say no can be key, Rehl said.
“I taught widows to stand in front of a mirror and practice saying to ‘helpful’ friends, relatives and financial salespersons, ‘That’s an interesting idea, but it’s way too early for me to decide now,'” she said.
Prepare for changes in income
Unfortunately, many widows experience big reductions in income, Rehl said.
“If the husband died before retirement, his salary will be gone,” she said. “However, if life insurance was in place that may cover lost income for some period.”
Rehl said some widows are too quick to use a life insurance benefit to pay off their mortgage. Before doing so, she recommends assessing your overall liquidity.
“She doesn’t want to be house rich but cash poor,” Rehl said.
Any pension your husband had and Social Security benefits will also need to be figured out.
“If he had a pension, this may stay the same, be reduced, or go away altogether, depending on how that pension plan was structured,” Rehl said. To figure this out, you’ll want to call the human resources department at where your late husband worked.
The Social Security equation is more complex, Rehl said.
But generally, if a woman’s husband was receiving Social Security benefits when he died, his widow is eligible for survivor benefits. Depending on her age, she may be able to collect 100% of his check amount. (To qualify, though, a widow typically needs to be at least 60 and have been married for a minimum of nine months at her husband’s time of death.)
“Some widows don’t realize that they will not receive a survivor benefit in addition to their own retirement benefit,” Rehl said. “Social Security simply pays the higher of the two amounts.”