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The Finances of Widowhood—Plus the Best Thing to Say to a Grieving Widow

The loss of a spouse is "the single most difficult life experience," says new Merrill Lynch/Age Wave research. But there are ways for couples to prepare.


THERE ARE 20 MILLION WIDOWS and widowers in the U.S. today—with 1.4 million joining their ranks every year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet the majority of couples aren’t prepared for this devastating loss.

“Most widows and widowers—78%—describe the loss of their spouse as the single most difficult and overwhelming life experience,” says Maddy Dychtwald, co-founder of Age Wave, which recently partnered with Merrill Lynch to conduct research on widowhood and how it can affect the surviving spouse’s life and finances.

 

No one is ever ready, emotionally, for the death of a spouse. But planning ahead as a couple can help you or your surviving spouse cope with the necessary paperwork, decision-making and potential loss of income, should the unthinkable happen.

Merrill Lynch/Age Wave widowhood research found that those who plan ahead financially for the loss of a spouse are much better able to handle stress and grief. Creating an estate plan and making sure you both know where all your important financial records are can help smooth the way forward.

Ensuring that both of you have access to all joint and personal accounts, and know the passwords for each, can save a lot of stress in the days after the death of a spouse.

Naming beneficiaries for your life insurance and retirement plans will ensure that payments are made in a timely fashion and hot held up by unnecessary paperwork.

Adjusting to a potential loss of income is one of the top three challenges that widows and widowers face, according to Merrill Lynch/Age Wave widowhood research. Having a clear understanding of your current and future income sources can help you make smart spending decisions as you move forward alone.

Sit down with your advisor to get a big-picture view of all of your assets and retirement accounts—including 401(k)s, IRAs and savings. Knowing where you stand is the first step to helping you plan for a secure future.

 

Having the right team—including a trusted financial advisor, attorney and tax professional—in your corner can be an invaluable resource as you deal with the financial and legal challenges of becoming a widow.

 

The research found that those who plan ahead financially for the loss of a spouse are much better able to handle grief. But a full 53% of the 2000 widows and widowers surveyed said they had no plan in place for what to do if one of them died.

The top 3 financial challenges of widowhood: becoming the sole financial decision maker (according to 69%), adjusting to a loss in income (67%), and navigating the maze of financial and legal paperwork that follows the loss of a spouse (66%).

It’s always difficult to find the right words to comfort grieving friends. According to the research, one of the most helpful things you can say is, “You are strong enough to handle this.” The least helpful: “Time heals all wounds.”

On a positive note: a full 77% of widows and widowers surveyed said “they found courage they never thought they had” as they transitioned to a life on their own. And 74% said they now spend more time with their families after becoming widowed.

Words of comfort: It’s always difficult to find the right words to comfort grieving friends. According to the widows and widowers surveyed, one of the most helpful things you can say is, “You are strong enough to handle this.” The least helpful: “Time heals all wounds.” Virtually all agree that when comforting someone in mourning, your actions are more important than words—85% suggest that you just let your grieving friends know that you are there for them if they want to talk.

Download and print: Our “Before” checklist, "Plan Ahead to Help Your Spouse Manage Loss," can help you and your spouse create a solid foundation for coping with the financial challenges of widowhood.

Save and share: Our “After” checklist, "A Practical Guide for Moving Forward Alone," offers useful action steps for recent widows and widowers you may know.

To learn more about what you can do to plan ahead, read "Widowhood: The Loss Couples Rarely Plan for — And Should.” And check out "Planning for Life After Widowhood: A Guide to Loss and Finances."


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