10 Things a Widow Must Know About Money

10 Things a Widow Must Know About Money

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Key financial steps that Solo-Mom widows should take

Two years ago, my friend was tragically widowed. She had two young children—their family was just settling into a wonderful new life. One couldn’t help but feel the senseless unjustness of it all. How could this possibly happen to such wonderful people?

The silver lining was that my friend had always managed the household finances and was as prepared as one could hope to be. She is also smart as a whip. Still, it was the furthest from easy. I watched in amazement as she navigated through a bureaucratic maze in the face of tremendous grief, and I learned a lot from her. “These things,” she said, “no one tells you about because nobody knows. God forbid you ever find out.”

ESME, however, exists so we can tell one another these things that no one tells you, so we can help one another with the lessons we’ve learned. So I asked my friend if she would share some advice that’s not often given. She agreed. Here are 10 things a widow should know:

  1. Have someone set up a YouCaring or other crowdsourcing fund. YouCaring is a free online fundraising site, and instead of flowers, people can express their sympathy by donating through this site and, by doing so, can raise some very serious cash. People far and near can donate, and you might even find yourself being helped by people who don’t know you but feel moved by your plight. Life-insurance coverage won’t pay out until you have a death certificate, and it may take up to eight weeks for you to receive it, so this fund can help tide you over.
  2. Ask about health insurance. If you have health insurance through your spouse’s employment, find out how long you are covered and if coverage can be extended. (See number five.) This was one of the first things my friend did after her husband’s funeral. At first, this surprised me—researching health insurance seemed like it could wait. Yet, if it lapses, secondary problems of great magnitude can arise.
  3. Call the Social Security office right away. Before you can start collecting benefits, you will have to meet with an agent. Agents may be booked weeks in advance, so it’s important to call as soon as possible. When you do, have your Social Security numbers and a marriage certificate in front of you, if possible.
  4. Look in unexpected places for life insurance. If your spouse didn’t buy life insurance personally, he may still have some. For example, employers, credit cards, and certain organizations sometimes have automatic policies. Think of all your spouse’s affiliations and call them, explain your circumstance, and ask about benefits. They may help you in surprising ways if there are no official benefits.
  5. Always ask, don’t assume—a lot of things are negotiable. This might be the most important and universal advice. For example, if your spouse was employed, make friends with people in his company who make the decisions. Sometimes they have a lot of say in things such as a health-insurance extension and grievance pay (and, of course, inquire about grievance pay). As my friend explains, “You will find that people tend to empathize and really do try to help, especially in the beginning.”
  6. Find out if your spouse’s policy has an accidental death rider. Some life-insurance policies have a rider that will pay additional amounts if the death was the result of an accident. Read the policy carefully, and know that even an agent may not always be aware of all the benefits. If you can’t hire an attorney, ask around to see if you can find one who will do it pro bono.
  7. Contact places that are expecting payment. If you explain to them your situation, they may offer forgiveness or deferment of your bills. (Again, see number five.) Also, if they auto-draft anything, cancel that until your financial picture is clear. If you weren’t the one paying the bills, this step might seem overwhelming, but don’t panic. By filing a “notice to creditors” with the assistance of an attorney, the notice will be published in a newspaper for creditors to reach out to the courts and the estate. This can be easier than playing “detective” regarding which bills are due (especially in the age of electronic payments).
  8. Don’t feel pressured to pay bills right away. And don’t spend any money until you figure out your financial situation. But do get in touch with the places that are expecting payment (as mentioned before) so you don’t end up in trouble.
  9. Hire a financial adviser. This might feel counterintuitive if you don’t have much money or even know where the money is. However, a good financial adviser is not just someone who tells you where to invest the money you have; he or she is someone who will help you with all aspects of your financial health. This person might even be able to help you through the process of settling accounts. However, not all financial advisers are created equal, and some who claim the title may be nothing more than agents trained in sales by the company whose products they sell. Find someone who works on a flat-fee retainer, and do your research.
  10. Accept help in all forms. Know that receiving is a form of giving in times like this. People want to help and are sincere when they offer it. If a therapist offers free sessions, a lawyer offers free service, a masseuse offers a free massage . . . take it. Accept meals, child care, or even a listening ear.

My own grandmother became a Solo Mom at a very young age due to widowhood. When my grandfather died, he left nothing but half a dozen kids and a life-insurance policy—delinquent, of course. Had she known she would be a widow, she might have prepared better. But how many of us plan to be a widow? Nonetheless, she managed to raise all her children. At 92, she is still financially independent.

I view this as proof that it’s never too late to fix a dire situation by being proactive and calling upon all the resources and support available to us. For more financial advice, read Tara Shafer’s excellent article, “Ten Financial-Planning Tips for Grieving Solo Moms.

See our Bereavement Resources to find links, articles, and a guide who understands.

Mika Yamamoto, ESME's Guide for Public Assistance, has successfully nurtured two children as a Solo Mom and now hopes to achieve the same results as a plant nanny.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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