As unpleasant as it may be, here’s something we all know: If you’re in a marriage, one of you is likely to predecease the other. And yet, in my experience, few of us are as prepared as we should be to deal with the financial realities of widowhood.

I understand that. It’s never fun to think about, let alone act on these sorts of things. But I want to do what I can to help make it a little easier for you if your spouse dies before you do. Let’s explore some key steps you can take to soften at least the financial blow.

On Your Own

With statistics suggesting that as many as 70–80 per cent of women change financial advisors after being widowed, it’s clearly an issue many of us put off until we’re actually faced with a realization that goes something like this:

“Now I’m making these decisions all by myself.”

This can be a profound – and profoundly unnerving – revelation. If your spouse dies before you do, not only do you lose your most important sounding board and mate, some of your most entrenched financial interests can become very different once you’re suddenly single. That’s a hard reality for anyone to face.

The Healing Power of Planning Ahead

Even if you’ve traditionally been the financial brainiac in the family – and especially if you’ve not been – it can be a tremendous relief if you’ve prepared in advance for some of the practical matters involved. By having an “autopilot” plan already in place, you’ll be better able to tend to the few financial tasks that absolutely must be done. You can then grant yourself permission to postpone the many other stress-inducing demands that can – and often should – wait for another day.

There are several precautionary steps you can take, so you can more readily hit the pause button on your financial affairs during a mourning period. You may want to refer to my earlier post on how to generally manage your finances as a couple. In particular:

  • Be diligent as a couple about maintaining current and relevant financial records, wills, trusts, powers of attorney, living wills (advance care directives), and pre-planned funeral arrangements.
  • Know where all this paperwork can be found, and be sure you’ve at least met your family’s network of advisors who can help you manage them.
  • Always make sure you’ve got enough cash available for continuing to make daily purchases and paying your bills for up to several months.

If You’ve Been Recently Widowed

If you take just one nugget of advice out of this entire post, here it is: If you’ve been recently widowed, don’t decide anything you don’t have to – especially about your finances. 

When you’re experiencing grief, it’s not just an emotion. Grief is literally a biological process. Even if you don’t realize it at the time, it messes with your head. Small choices can feel overwhelming, let alone the big ones. That’s why my advice is to put off anything and everything that can wait. This is especially important on the financial front, where a seemingly small decision may have a lasting impact on your net worth.

Basically, unless all heck is about to break loose if you fail to act, please give yourself permission to wait. Most financial decisions are NOT as urgent as they might seem.

When You’re Ready

Over time – once you feel ready to move on – slow and steady remains the way to go. Eventually, you may find it helpful and cleansing to gather up your scattered resources and take stock of what you’ve got. Look for things like insurance policies, financial statements, personal identification, mortgages, retirement benefits, safety deposit box contents, business paperwork, military service records, club memberships, and similar items.

You also can start to reach out to others to help with estate settlement. Besides working with your estate lawyer, you can …

  • Turn to your financial advisor for help organizing and retitling your investment accounts.
  • Sort through your spouse’s retirement and work benefits.
  • Contact your spouse’s employers to learn more.
  • Speak with your accountant about necessary tax filings.
  • Contact creditors about resolving any outstanding debts.
  • Firm up your ongoing banking and bill-payment routines.

Eventually, you may feel prepared to take a fresh look at your new, “single-person” financial plans. Now that you’re the sole decision-maker, what are your own, potentially different earning, saving, investing, and spending needs? Is it time to update your own will, powers of attorney, and insurance coverage?

Never Easy, But Maybe a Little Easier

Don’t get me wrong. No advance and ongoing financial planning on the planet will eliminate the grief you’re likely to endure if you lose your spouse. But being well-prepared to put most financial decisions on hold while you’re in mourning can be a big relief, just when you need it the most.

Pre-planning can help create the emotional space you’ll need to manage the few, truly essential financial chores that cannot wait. It will also help free up the rest of your time and energy, so you can focus on taking care of yourself and your loved ones.

Am I making sense so far? In my next post, I’m going to take on another un-fun family financial concern that can be just as challenging: What do you do if a family member is alive, but losing their mental capacity? Subscribe to my YouTube channel or connect with me on LinkedIn to be notified as soon as I release that next important subject.