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Don't Become a 'Shoebox Widow'

Wives in the dark about family finances can face serious problems when their husbands die. Now's the time to see the light.

By Wendy Weaver | March 12, 2013
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Wendy Weaver is a Certified Financial Planner and portfolio manager at the fee-only wealth management firm, FBB Capital Partners in Bethesda, Md. She specializes in financial planning for widows, retirees and families.

In many marriages, one spouse is assigned management of the couple's finances. Frequently, that’s because the other spouse either has no interest in or no understanding of investing, taxes and other money topics. Usually, it’s the wife who is in the dark.
 
But this arrangement can become disastrous when the financially minded spouse dies, creating what’s sometimes called “the shoebox widow” problem.

(MORE: First Financial Steps to Take After Losing a Spouse)
 
At that point, the woman is left with little knowledge or direction on the couple's financial situation. Essentially, all their records are jumbled in a shoebox, making an already emotionally overwhelming situation even worse.

Here are six steps couples can take now to prevent a potential “shoebox widow” situation in the future:

1. Open the discussion. The most important thing couples can do to chart their financial future is to initiate a conversation about it.
 
Surprisingly, discussing the very unpleasant topic of the personal finance repercussions that will arise from one partner's death can actually help ease the transition from one-spouse money management to two.
 
It also lets each partner know how the other would want his or her money handled.
 
Don't know how to approach the topic? Buy a book or seek help from a money coach. (In his Next Avenue article, “The 7 Best Books for Your Money and Career,” Chris Farrell recommends Personal Finance for Dummies.) It is best for both of you to read the book or see the coach together, if possible, so you’ll be working off the same foundation.

2. Get involved. The spouse who has been ignorant of the couple’s finances needs to step up. Learning about your household’s investments, assets and monthly bills is a great place to start.
 
(MORE: How Women Who’ve Never Invested Can Get Started)
 
Couples should set aside a particular time each month to discuss their financial situation. Regular meetings leave less opportunity for surprises down the road. They’re ideal times to mention, say, a new store credit card you opened or a checking account you closed.
 
Dedicate one meeting a year to discuss such big picture items as when the mortgage will be paid off and whether to prepay the loan to move up the date.

3. Create a unified organization system for finances. Online services, like Mint.com, can help you aggregate all your accounts and financial obligations in one place.
 
If you’re less comfortable with online financial tools, try creating a large binder that houses all your valuable records. Keep this in a secure and fire-safe box.
 
(MORE: Organize Important Papers in Case of Emergency)

4. Know how your family's assets are protected. A couple should be familiar with each other's estate planning and insurance coverage.

An estate plan is the best way to ensure your finances will be handled the way you’d like after you die. Moreover, a properly drafted estate plan is a wonderful legacy to leave your heirs.
 
A solid estate plan includes three documents: a will (to name your executor and outline how your assets will be divvied up); a financial power of attorney (authorizing someone to handle your money if you’re unable to do so) and an advanced medical directive or a living will (the blueprint for end-of-life medical care).

Insurance is a major component of any financial plan. Some couples should carry disability and life insurance, perhaps long-term care insurance, too.
 
Both spouses should be aware of not only the types of coverage they carry and how much they own, but where the policies are held. A financial professional can help you understand coverage options and make appropriate decisions based on individual needs.
 
(MORE: Divorce Deals a Painful Blow to Women’s Insurance)

5. Consider seeking help from a money pro. If your spouse can’t or won’t explain things, you may want to hire a financial planner. 
 
You can search for a certified financial planner at the websites of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, the Certified Financial Planning Board or the Financial Planning Association.

6. Know the first financial steps once a spouse dies. It’s often confusing and overwhelming when a husband or wife dies. So, you’ll want to know ahead of time exactly what you’ll need to navigate your family’s finances when the time comes.
 
An important first step is securing the death certificate. Many funeral homes will jumpstart the process as part of their service. (For more on this subject, see the Next Avenue article: “How to Plan a Funeral.”)
 
Next, the surviving spouse must call the Social Security office to alert the agency of the death.
 
Taking proper steps to assure that monthly bills will continue getting paid on time is also critical; otherwise the survivor could be hit with late fees and a lower credit score.
 
Transferring account titles and investments can be handled within six to eight months after a spouse’s death, sooner if they’ll provide the survivor’s only income.

Once you’re armed with knowledge about all of these money matters, you’ll never need to worry about becoming a “shoebox widow.”
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