Just when you feel least able to cope with life after your husband’s death, you’ll be faced with making crucial decisions that can affect your finances, your family, your livelihood and more.

Loss of a spouse tops the charts as the number one most stressful event in life. I know. This happened to me when I became a widow 10 years ago.

Here is a checklist of key steps to consider as you begin to move forward on your new path. Taking positive financial actions can help you regain a sense of control and well-being, as well as cope with anxiety.

 
 

If you are a family member or friend supporting someone newly widowed, you can encourage her and offer to help with some of these tasks.

Keep it Simple and Get Organized

First, create a filing system for easy retrieval of information you’ll reference. Colored manila folders are helpful for these file headings: bank correspondence, bills, credit card statements, business related, employer correspondence, estate documents, household, income tax related, investments, life insurance, other assets, and personal documents.

Write important due dates on your calendar.

Keep a log of your actions including the date, contact person and pertinent notes. It’s easy to become distracted at this time and forget some of calls you’ve already made or what was discussed or decided.

Work with an Attorney and Tax Preparer

Locate financial documents, including your husband’s will and trust if applicable.

If you’re the executor of your husband’s will, start the estate settlement process with guidance from your professional advisors.

Ask which documents to keep and discuss tax issues for the current year.

Review Cash Flow and Liquidity Needs

List where your money comes from and where it needs to go – including your mortgage or rent, household expenses, and insurance payments.

Financial Advice for Widows on Collecting Benefits

Locate the birth certificate, Social Security number, marriage license, military discharge papers, financial account statements, and other documents you may need to collect death benefits.

Consider your Social Security options carefully. You can apply for Social Security retirement benefits as early as age 60 with limited employment income. But you’ll get less than if you wait and file for benefits later. You can receive money from your own retirement benefit or the survivor’s benefit. For me, it was best to start with the survivor’s benefit and later change to my own benefit. File a benefit claim through a Social Security office or online at www.ssa.gov.

Contact your husband’s life insurance company to file a claim. Check for other possible life insurance policies issues by your husband’s employer, mortgage company, credit company and professional association or union. Understand your various payout options.

If your husband served in the military, contact the Department of Veteran Affairs. You may be eligible for benefits such as medical care, commissary exchange and veterans’ mortgage life insurance. Go to www.va.gov or visit a local VA office.

Transfer your husband’s Individual Retirement Account (IRA) to your own IRA if you were the beneficiary.

Contact the Human Resources Department of your late husband’s employer if he was working when he died. Unpaid salary, vacation pay, sick pay and other benefits may be due.

Take a pension from your husband’s qualified retirement plan or roll over money into your IRA, depending on your options.

Adjust Health and Other Insurance Coverage

Make sure you have medical insurance coverage. If you were covered under your late husband’s work policy, ask about continuing that coverage. If you had your own policy before, notify the company of your husband’s death.

Inform insurance agents for your auto, homeowner’s, liability, long-term care and any other policies. Premiums may be lower for one fewer driver.

Review Assets and Liabilities

Create a financial net worth statement – a list of all you currently own and what you owe.

Complete the Estate Settlement

At the appropriate time, change the title and beneficiaries on investments, vehicles and safe deposit boxes. You may want to hold off temporarily on changing names on credit cards to continue using your existing cards.

Don’t change your joint checking account name for a year or so because checks may still arrive payable to your spouse for some time.

File an estate tax return with the help of your attorney if federal or state estate tax is owed.

Take Care of Yourself

Remember self-care, which may include exercise, yoga, meditation, facials, manicures, massages, bubble baths, a beautiful sunset, spiritual practices and chocolate!

Consider joining a local group for widows or talking with a counselor. Website groups are also available, such as Widowed Village. Two outstanding national organizations are the Modern Widows Club and Soaring Spirits International.

Keep in touch with your women friends.

Postpone Major Irrevocable Decisions during the First Year when Possible!

Don’t rush. Take time with any big decisions. Especially during early grief, your life will probably feel like it’s turned upside down. Your mental, emotional, and physical condition may be very different than before your husband’s death.

Well-meaning acquaintances, extended family or salespeople who don’t know your situation may bombard you with suggestions – not all best for you. For example, now may not be the time to pay off your home mortgage. It might not be smart to move in permanently with your adult child’s family. You also don’t want to invest the life insurance benefits check in financial products you don’t understand.

Ask yourself, “Must this decision be made right now, or can it wait until a better time for me to take action?”

If you don’t feel confident in making some decisions alone, ask a trusted professional to assist you. You are at a vulnerable time after your husband’s death. Go slowly. Be gentle with yourself.

What financial advice would you offer to a friend who has just lost her husband? If you’ve helped a widowed friend or relative, what steps did you assist with? What other financial advice for widows can you share? Please share with us in the comments?

Kathleen RehlKathleen M. Rehl, Ph.D., CFP®, CeFT™ is passionate about inspiring her “widowed sisters” and their advisors through her speaking, writing and research. She wrote the award winning book, “Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows.” Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger’s, CNBC and more.

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