How to pick up the financial pieces after the death of a husband or wife

PERSONAL FINANCE

July 18, 2004|By EILEEN AMBROSE

FOUR YEARS AGO, Diane Howard quit her job with an insurance company in Washington to join her husband living in Chicago. Three months later, her 52-year-old husband died of a heart attack.

His assets went to his children from a prior marriage, and Howard was left with no paycheck coming in. On top of her grieving, Howard faced financial decisions, such as cutting expenses, making sure she had health insurance and taking inventory of her assets.

"You really are in a fog. You can be somewhat numbed and there is a tendency to make errors of judgment," the 50-year-old said.

It remains one of those statistical realities: Women tend to outlive men. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, women are about four times as likely to be widowed as men. Among those 60 and older, nearly 39 percent of women and 11.2 percent of men outlived a spouse.

That means women more often will find themselves picking up the financial pieces after a spouse's death. It's not often easy. Nearly one-quarter of widows are broke within two months of a husband's death, according to the Women's Institute for Financial Education.

Jarratt G. Bennett, a financial planner in Fairfax, Va., recalls one new widow who spent $40,000 within a few months taking her children to Europe and Bermuda.

"She felt she had to keep doing things for her kids. She had to keep spending money," said Bennett, author of Making the Money Last, a book for surviving spouses. The widow planned to buy her 18-year-old son a new Corvette, but Bennett presuaded her to invest for her future instead.

Here is advice from experts who work with widows, although it can apply to widowers, too:

Take no drastic steps. A widow may go through a series of stages, from shock and denial to anger and mourning, said Regina Forte, founder of Lifesteps, a financial counselor in Timonium and a contributing author to Making the Money Last.

"She is literally reinventing herself as a single person. She may not have been single for 25 to 50 years," Forte said.

With emotions raw, new widows are advised to put off, if possible, major decisions in the first year after a spouse's death.

Widows who get life insurance proceeds, for example, should park the cash in a money-market account until they have time to think clearly what they want to do with it, Forte said.

There often is pressure on new widows to make big money decisions. Children and relatives will ask for loans. Unscrupulous sales people scour obituaries and call up widows to sell them investments they don't need, experts warned.

And it's not just big money decisions that should be put on the backburner. Don't quit your job or move, experts said.

"One woman sold her house in the community where everyone knew her and moved to another state to be nearer her sister," said Dodie Theune, a senior vice president at the Bryn Mawr Trust Co. in Pennsylvania. "After her grieving period was over and she was ready to go out back in the world, it was not the world she knew. It was another state, another culture." The woman ended up moving again.

Create a budget. Often the loss of a husband means less household income.

If he worked, his paycheck will disappear. If retired, his pension income might be reduced or eliminated. And if both spouses collected Social Security, only one check will come in, although it will be the amount of the higher benefit.

Widows need to figure their expenses and how much income they will have coming in. They may have to cut costs.

Establish a credit record. Occasionally, a widow may discover that she has little or no credit history of her own, experts said. That can happen if she has been an "authorized user" of a husband's credit card, instead of a joint owner.

Being an authorized user is less meaningful to creditors trying to gauge creditworthiness because authorized users aren't responsible for making payments, said Maxine Sweet, vice president of consumer education for Experian, a major credit bureau.

Widows should contact the card issuer, which might give her plastic in her own name although the terms and credit limit likely won't be the same as before, experts said. Or, if she can't get a card, she should start to build her own credit record.

One way is to get a secured card, where she deposits money in a savings account and that becomes her credit limit, said Todd Mark, spokesman for the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta.

By making one or two charges monthly and paying them off in full and on time, she can build a track record in six to nine months that will make her eligible for a standard credit card, he said.

Acquire or update documents. Widows will need financial and health care powers of attorney, where they designate someone to make money and medical decisions for them if they no longer can, said Rajiv Goel, an estate planning lawyer in Bel Air.

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