A surviving spouse's survival guide

Widows and widowers can face financial disarray if they played a limited role - or no role at all - in household money matters. How some seek to take control.

Cookie Kerxton's husband, Jack, took care of the personal finances during their 45 years together. He delegated much of the work to stockbrokers and accountants. The successful architect even turned payment of some monthly bills over to his secretary. When he asked his wife to sign financial documents, Mrs. Kerxton rarely bothered to read them.

So when he died in 1993, she had a lot to learn about all those papers peppered with dollar signs.

"I really didn't know a bill from a notice at that point," Kerxton says in a phone interview from her apartment in Chevy Chase, Md. "I hardly knew what a CD was - I thought it was something you played."

Even though they had prepared for his passing, she says she was in shock at first. "I didn't feel devastated, [as if] I was going to go to the poorhouse. But you're so busy going through papers and papers and papers.... I remember the day that I looked for the [car] title. I started at 9:00 in the morning. I was in my nightgown. And at about 4:30 in the afternoon I hadn't found it yet. But I could have filled a dumpster with the stuff that I found that I no longer needed."

Kerxton is typical of her generation in some ways. But widows of all ages are often left even less prepared.

"It's very rare for married couples ... to discuss what's going to happen next," says Deborah Carr, a sociology professor at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. "Particularly for older women who were not raised to be financially independent ..., that lack of discussion is really problematic."

Handling personal finances on their own is distressing at first for many women, says Rebecca Utz, a sociologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. A recent study of hers found that, among people 65 and older, 41 percent of women experienced a greater sense of financial strain in the first six months of being widowed, compared with 16 percent of men.

It's also their sheer numbers that make women the target audience for financial-planning specialists and books on coping with widowhood. The 11.1 million widows in the United States outnumber widowers by more than 4 to 1, according to the 2000 census. But much of what experts suggest can be equally useful for men and women.

If you're a surviving spouse, the No. 1 piece of advice from financial planners is to resist the pressure to make major decisions right away. You may think you need to move to a smaller house or somewhere near your children. You'll probably receive many solicitations from insurance or investment companies. Suggestions will flow in from well-meaning family members.

"A lot of people will have brilliant ideas about what to do with your money, but it may not be in your best interest," says Susan Breakefield Fulton, a fee-only asset manager in Bethesda, Md., who has helped scores of widows with their finances. "Our industry does not make it simple," Ms. Fulton adds. "I see a lot of people that have been put into investments that they can't get out of without tremendous cost, that may or may not serve them."

Unless your spouse left a detailed account of all your financial information, it can sometimes take months of just waiting for the mail to discover the range of income, debts, and benefits you have.

Even when you think you've found everything, surprises can emerge. One of Fulton's clients called her about five years after her husband had died to say she had received something interesting in the mail. "It was another mutual fund she had no idea she had," Fulton says. "It was $40,000 she didn't know existed."

When considering a major change, such as moving, "take at least six months to think it through," says Nancy Dunnan, author of "The Widow's Financial Survival Guide." Not only is your emotional state likely to change, but it's also important to take some time to see how your living expenses are affected by being single, she says.

Sherwin Lesk, a certified financial planner with Leonetti & Associates Inc. in Buffalo Grove, Ill., has seen many widows create artificial deadlines for financial decisions, and then start to panic. "But there are certain things that are time sensitive," he adds.

With retirement accounts, for instance, if beneficiaries haven't been designated properly, "there's a limited window to avoid a tax disaster." There's also a time limit for filing a disclaimer - a way of declining a portion of an inheritance and passing it on instead to the next beneficiary. Disclaimed property, for instance, can be given to a child without it being considered a taxable gift. (See story.)

While some people look to take advantage of wealthy widows and widowers, you shouldn't be hesitant to turn to financial and legal experts, Ms. Dunnan says. If family members can't provide needed expertise, they can help you find advisers you trust.

Kerxton has two lawyers in the family, her niece and her brother-in-law, to whom she often turned with questions.

"I feel very fortunate," says Kerxton, who retired in 1998 as director of creative-arts therapy at a hospital psychiatric unit. "There's only one person who took advantage of me, and that was my accountant. He just charged me an astronomical fee ... [much more than] what he had charged my husband the year before."

Although Kerxton worried at first that she might not have enough money for the future, her brother-in-law assured her that if she didn't spend her principal, she could live off the interest.

Widowhood does mean a decline in income for 6 of 10 people, but only 6 percent report serious financial problems in the first few years after losing their spouse, according to Ms. Utz's study.

And the initial stress from dealing with finances often gives way to the satisfaction of learning new tasks. "In many ways widowed people become much fuller people because they have to live up to the roles that both partners were previously performing," Dr. Carr says.

Kerxton, for instance, has taken an active role in her stock portfolio. "One of my best investments is something I made Susan [Fulton] buy," she says proudly.

For younger widows or widowers, the picture is often especially complex. You may need to save for a child's education. If you were a stay-at-home parent, you may have to head back to work. You will also need to adjust your will and designate a guardian for your children.

Dunnan includes a section in her book with advice specifically for younger widows. She also offers tips on dining out on a budget and vacation ideas for single women - ranging from volunteering on a farm to learning to ice-climb with an organization called Chicks and Picks.

When Dunnan wrote about these social aspects of life, she had older women in mind. After decades of socializing as part of a couple, widowhood can be especially isolating for them, she says.

"You have to turn to your children, of course," Dunnan says, "but you ... don't want every vacation you take for the rest of your life to be with your children. You want a healthy balance. And doing those things requires some financial planning."

Where it makes sense to focus attention first

As important as it is to not feel rushed to make decisions after your spouse dies, some financial matters do need to be handled in the first few weeks or months. The following suggestions were culled from "The Widow's Financial Survival Guide," by Nancy Dunnan, and the website of AARP (www.aarp.org/griefandloss):

Keep an estate book: Start recording expenses right away. Also keep contact information for people you speak to about finances and legal issues.

Pay the bills: Neglecting monthly bills could put a blemish on your credit rating. If you lack funds, you or a family member can inform the company of your spouse's death and ask for an extension or a payment plan.

Don't pay bills that are in only your spouse's name, however. Call those creditors and let them know they will be paid by the estate.

Locate documents: The papers you'll need include your spouse's will and, if there is one, a letter of instruction.

Also find your marriage certificate, birth certificates for your spouse and dependent children, the death certificate, discharge papers if your spouse was in the military, recent income-tax returns, bank and investment statements, retirement records, and car titles.

Notify institutions: To collect benefits, you'll want to notify your spouse's employer, the Social Security Administration, and insurance companies. You may also be able to claim benefits from your spouse's military service or union membership.

Begin settling the estate: The state probate court and the executor of the will (you, or another person named in the will, or somebody appointed by the court) oversee the distribution of benefits and payment of creditors.

Not everything needs to go through probate - assets owned jointly, for instance, and insurance and retirement benefits in which a beneficiary is named. Probate is necessary if your spouse owned assets in his or her name only, or if named beneficiaries have died. If you are not named in the will, you still may be owed a portion of the estate and should hire a probate lawyer.

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