Spouse's death forces tough decisions

May 24, 1992|By Glenn Burkins | Glenn Burkins,Knight-Ridder News Service

The last 15 months have not been easy for Anne, a southern New Jersey mother of four.

At 44, her husband died, and that has forced her into a role she never wanted.

Aside from being a single parent, she also has to wear the hat of financial guru. Her first major challenge: deciding how to invest the thousands of dollars in proceeds from her husband's life insurance policies.

There's a lot at stake, and no one knows that better than Anne herself. At least three of her children will be going to college one day, so it's crucial that she invest wisely.

But where can a grieving widow turn for financial advice? Friends and family offered to help, but in the end the frightening decisions fell squarely onto her own shoulders.

"I didn't know what stocks and bonds were," she recalled. "I didn't even know what CDs were. I have to live off this money forever. And with four children, I didn't want to lose it."

Regardless of age, the death of a spouse can be a frightening experience. But for Anne, it was paralyzing, too.

For more than a year, she left the insurance money in a bank account, where it earned dirt-cheap interest rates. She even refused to take her husband's name from accounts they once shared.

"Emotionally, I didn't want to take him out of everything," she said. "But one year later, if I have to, I could."

As it turned out, Anne made at least one good decision: She did nothing.

"In a way, doing nothing is a healthy response," said Carole Phillips, vice president of Wescott Financial Planning Group Inc., of Philadelphia. "There are many people who would gladly take ** that money and invest it in inappropriate places and take a nice commission for themselves."

Indeed, most experts agree that a grieving spouse should wait at least 12 to 18 months before making any major financial moves, such as selling a house, moving or making long-term investments.

"There is going to be a period of readjustment, and it takes time to see what your obligations are," said Harry R. Tyler, president of Tyler Consulting Inc., a West Chester, Pa., financial-planning business. "You just can't make informed decisions without going through it."

Even now, more than a year later, Anne is still cautious when it comes to her financial affairs. That's why she asked that her last name not be used.

"I went in blind and kind of doggie-paddled for a year," she said. "I didn't know anything about money. I never had any."

Another thing Anne did right was to talk with friends and relatives who knew qualified investment professionals. For a person not used to managing money, this can be a crucial step.

Anne, for example, ended up using several professionals, all recommended by people she knew. By spreading her money around, she can reduce the risks of being seriously hurt by any one money manager.

Preparation goes a long way when disaster strikes, Mr. Tyler said. Therefore, he has left his wife a detailed list of things to consider if he should die first.

It tells where all of the family accounts and assets are. It also includes retirement plans and insurance policies. And finally, it gives the names of several money managers in whom Mr. Tyler has confidence.

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