A Financial Survival Guide for Surviving Spouses

The death of a great First Lady transcends politics. Our nation just laid Barbara Bush to rest, and Americans have been deeply moved by her devotion to family and nation – and to her spouse, former President George H.W. Bush, now a widower after 73 years of marriage. Most of us would feel incredibly blessed to have such an enduring marriage. And it’s almost impossible to imagine what it must be like to move forward alone.

And yet we must move forward. Whether our spouse’s death is unexpected or follows a lengthy ordeal, it delivers a jolt we are never really prepared for. Grief and mourning affect us all uniquely, but all widows and widowers share a painful dilemma: On the one hand, the world seems to demand rapid response to a barrage of critical questions – financial and otherwise. On the other hand, it’s usually unwise to make big decisions when we are at our most vulnerable.

Here are some helpful ideas if you have been recently widowed (or you know someone who has), plus preemptive steps to take if you’re reading this in happier times.

If you’ve just been widowed …


Don’t decide anything you don’t have to – especially about your finances.

This may seem like odd advice from a financial advisor. Our usual role is to help people make sound money decisions and get on with their lives. But grief is not just an emotion. It’s a biological process affecting your ability to make rational decisions regarding your financial interests. Even small choices can feel overwhelming, let alone the big ones. That’s why our advice at this time is to put off anything that can wait.

Create the space to focus on matters that actually are urgent.

Putting long-term plans on hold creates space to take care of the essentials, such as making funeral arrangements, managing immediate expenses, and simply taking care of yourself and your dependents. Make sure you’ve got enough cash flow available to make daily purchases and pay your bills, so these don’t become a source of added stress. Gather imminently critical paperwork such as any pre-planned funeral arrangements, and multiple copies of the death certificate. And make sure health care coverage for yourself and any children remains in place.

Lean on others, even if you don’t usually.

You don’t have to go it alone. For practical and emotional support, turn to friends, family, clergy and similar relationships. For financial and legal paperwork, contact professionals such as your financial advisor, CPA and insurance agent. Focus on relationships that help relieve your burden and avoid those that burn up your energy. Be cautious about forming brand new relationships at this time; unfortunately, seemingly sympathetic con artists prey on those whose defenses are down.

After a little time has passed …

Assess your position.

Once you feel ready to tackle longer-term logistics, proceed slowly and steadily. It can be helpful and cleansing to start by gathering up scattered resources. Wills and trusts, insurance policies, financial statements, personal identification, mortgages, retirement benefits, safety deposit box contents, business paperwork, military service records, club memberships … Whether on paper or online, take stock of what you’ve got.

Reach out.

Continue reaching out to others to address your evolving needs. Your financial advisor can help organize your investment accounts, shift ownerships as needed, close or consolidate unnecessary ones, and sort through your spouse’s retirement and work benefits. Contact your spouse’s employers to learn more. Work with a lawyer for settling the estate. Meet with an insurance specialist to revisit your healthcare coverage. Speak with your accountant about the necessary tax filings. Contact creditors about resolving any outstanding debts. Firm up your ongoing banking and bill-payment routines.

Shift your focus outward.

Eventually, the time will come when you’re ready to circle back to those larger decisions you put on hold. Your financial advisor can help you take a fresh look at your finances – your earning, saving, investing and spending plans. You also may start to look at your larger wealth interests, such as your will, trusts, overall insurance coverage and more. Whether you determine everything is fine or adjustments are warranted, wait until you’re at a place in which you can make these sorts of decisions deliberately instead of in haste.

If you’re reading this piece during happier times, we can’t emphasize enough how important it is to plan for when one or both of you pass away. Planning can simplify or even eliminate some of the most agonizing decisions surviving family members must face during one of the worst times in their lives. Advance planning can be one of the most loving gifts you can give one another as a couple, especially if you have dependent children

How else can we help? When you’re ready to talk, please know we will be here to listen.