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Love Is Eternal, but Life Isn’t! Facing the Chance of Becoming a Widow

By Kathleen M. Rehl October 12, 2020 Family

Soon after my book was published, I attended a community luncheon. Several couples were seated at my table, and we introduced ourselves. After watching me for a few minutes, one wife suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, I saw your picture in Sunday’s newspaper. You wrote that guidebook for widows!”

She continued. “But I’ll never need to read your book because Bill and I have an agreement, don’t we, Honey?” She smiled at her husband. “We’ve worked out a deal. I get to die first, so I don’t have to learn about that money stuff. It’s so BORING. I’d rather go play with our grandchildren. Bill does all our financial work for us. My husband takes such good care of me, don’t you, Darling?”

Facing a Double Whammy!

That husband appeared to be older than his wife. He was also not in the best of health. So who’s most likely to die first? Probably the wife will be left on her own after her husband dies.

Indeed, half of all women widowed at age 65 can expect to live another 15 years. After Bill’s death, she’ll be in the midst of grief – plus be clueless about their finances. That’s a difficult double whammy!

I call this magical thinking. If we start talking about that time ahead when one of us passes on, somebody’s going to die! Let’s just not discuss this, so it won’t happen! If you and your spouse do this kind of “Magical Thinking,” STOP IT! It doesn’t make sense, does it?

A Great Gift for Your Spouse

I believe one of the best gifts a couple can give each other is talking about their money matters together, before one of them passes on. That includes topics like:

  • Are wills and trusts up to date?
  • What are the primary sources of income (Social Security, pensions, annuities, employment, investments, etc.) and what happens to these when one of us dies?
  • Where are investments held and what is their purpose (retirement, lifestyle, income, etc.)?
  • What are the passwords and PINs for various accounts?
  • Are beneficiaries named correctly on retirement and other designated beneficiary accounts?
  • Is there an adequate level of insurance?
  • What’s in the safety deposit box?
  • Where is the “household manual,” including good repair folks’ names and phone numbers?
  • If real property is involved, is this titled correctly?
  • With blended families, what responsibilities will continue in the future – such as a special needs child?
  • What about the long-term financial stability of the surviving spouse?
  • What professional advisors should be contacted?

How Financially Prepared Are You to Become a Widow?

If you’re married, one of you will certainly die someday, leaving the other behind. Having these conversations is a way to really express care for your partner. You might start by saying “Honey, because I love you so much, I want us to talk about some important money issues together.”

Then pick an evening that’s quiet and share a glass of wine or another favorite beverage together as you talk about one money topic. Then in a week or so, move on to another topic. It’s a better method than simply falling back on magical thinking, which ultimately fails.

Share Your Thoughts

I’m currently involved with what may be the largest international research study of widowed persons to date. One question asks participants what they regretted not knowing about money and finances before their spouse died. Almost 1,000 women answered this.

Many comments were heartbreaking. Like the widow who didn’t know she was not the beneficiary of her deceased husband’s life insurance. Or the woman who had never written a check before her spouse died and didn’t have a clue about their finances.

Many of these women subsequently made major financial mistakes. They invested in things they didn’t understand. Their vulnerability was because they had remained oblivious to their family’s money matters for years, or even forever.

What financial topics would you suggest that spouses talk about together? Or, if you were widowed and didn’t have these money conversations, what do you wish that you would have talked about? Thanks for adding your comments below.

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The Author

Kathleen M. Rehl, Ph.D., CFP®, wrote the award-winning book, Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows. She owned Rehl Financial Advisors for 18 years before an encore career empowering widows. Now “reFired,” Rehl writes legacy stories and assists nonprofits. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger’s, CNBC, and more. She’s adjunct faculty at The American College of Financial Services.

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