Mental-health experts estimate it takes about two years for a widow or widower to absorb what has happened and be capable of making major decisions again. The initial shock and numbness give way to a deep sense of loss and then a realization that those tasks that were once shared—including financial ones like tax preparation and insurance decisions—now must be done alone.
Because of that two-year period of psychological adjustment, I advised all my clients who were widowed not to make any major financial decisions during that time. However, the fear of being unable to maintain their standard of living often drives people to make major financial decisions too soon. In many cases, they make the wrong decisions.
You must make some decisions, of course, but be careful about making any big choices immediately. Here are the steps I recommend you follow.
First, look for funeral directions left by your spouse. They may be found in a will or in a separate letter.
Second, order (either from the funeral director or the county clerk's office) 10 to 20 certified copies of the death certificate. This needs to be done right after the funeral in order to claim the benefits due you from company pension plans, Social Security, life insurance proceeds, annuities, and so on. You'll also need the documentary proof of your spouse's death to change titles on cars and your home.
Third, arrange for someone to stay at your house during the funeral to protect your property. Unfortunately, unscrupulous people prey upon those who've been widowed, and a favorite ploy is to burglarize a home during a funeral.
Within the First Two Weeks
Have your attorney review your spouse's will and file it in probate court if necessary. Collect any documents needed to claim death benefits (bank and brokerage statements, marriage certificate, and birth certificate). Contact your insurance agent, investment advisor, spouse's employer and former employers, and the Social Security office to start the process of claiming benefits due to you.
Within One Month
Keep a record of your cash flow so you can determine where you stand financially and what your living expenses are likely to be.
As money from insurance or employers begins to come in, deposit it in a bank in short-term certificates of deposit (CDs) or money market funds. One strategy is to put the money equally into 6-, 12-, and 18-month CDs so that you'll have money coming available to you every six months. At this point it's not necessary to worry about missing out on "better" investment opportunities. Your primary focus now should be to ensure you can pay your bills as they arise.
Within the First Six Months
Update any of your insurance policies that name your deceased spouse as beneficiary. Change any joint billing and credit card accounts that have his or her name on them. If you are the executor of your spouse's estate, notify your creditors and satisfy the debts as they come due. If there are likely to be estate taxes, get professional advice to determine how much they'll be and when they'll be due.
Review all insurance coverage, especially medical insurance, to make sure you and your family are adequately protected. Have your will revised to reflect your changed circumstances. If you don't have a will, then get one. It's more important for a widowed or single parent to have a will than it is for a married couple. You may need to appoint a guardian for your young children or change the executor or trustee, since your spouse was most likely named as executor and trustee in your will.
Review your checking account or spouse's checkbook and files to determine if you may be due benefits from sources you didn't know about. Look for automatic checking account deductions for life insurance. Look for other possible benefits, such as a union policy, fraternal organization, credit life insurance, military benefits, or other life insurance policies.
By the Second Year
By the second year, you should develop short- and long-term financial plans. Major investment decisions still do not need to be made, but it's time to do the following:
- List all the assets you now have.
- List all debts.
- List all the life insurance covering you.
- List all sources of income.
- List all expenses, categorized by major area.
- List all insurance policies.
- Begin thinking about listing some long-term, major needs such as college education, lifestyle needs, debt payoff, giving, and so on.
In the second year and beyond, implement your financial plan, making decisions about housing, investments, insurance, and lifestyle.
While this is the approach I recommend, it's not written in concrete. Depending on your personality, training, age, and income level, the sequence and time frame you follow may differ. I do strongly encourage you, however, to delay making major lifestyle and investment decisions to allow some time for grieving and adjustment. It may be nine months, a year, or two years. You need that time to adjust to the death of a significant part of your life.