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Money Advice for Wives Whose Husbands Die Suddenly

What to do and what not to do at this wrenching time

It was headline news around the globe in May when Dave Goldberg, 47, Survey Monkey’s Chief Executive Officer and the husband of Facebook Chief Operating Officer and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, 45, died suddenly of heart-related causes while the couple was vacationing in Mexico.

One thing that caught my attention was the financial shock this kind of heartbreaking event can have on someone. This is a topic I know something about, having written the book Suddenly Single: Money Skills for Divorcees and Widows a while back.

So I’d like to offer money advice to wives in their 40s, 50s or 60s whose husbands die suddenly and unexpectedly. (One third of women who become widows are younger than 65, according to the Women’s Institute For a Secure Retirement.) The financial issues they’ll immediately confront go far beyond losing an income.

Losing a spouse in a blink of an eye can be wrenching. Writing about her experience on Facebook, Sandberg called it “completely unexpected hell — the darkest and saddest moments of my life.” And money is the last thing you want to think about. You want someone else to deal with it for you. But you can’t.

A few items must be dealt with immediately. The rest can be tabled to give widows time to get organized and to handle the next steps.

— Cheryl J. Sherrard

In the weeks following your husband’s death, you will be forced to make dozens of decisions, so you’ll need to get a grip on your finances as quickly as possible. Here’s how, based on my research and interviews with two ace financial planners:

Focus on pressing, routine financial decisions. These include collecting death benefits and ensuring cash flow. “My advice to a recent widow is that we first deal with only the essentials,” says Cheryl J. Sherrard, a Certified Financial Planner and director of Financial Planning at Clearview Wealth Management in Charlotte, N.C.

“There will be a lot of moving parts right after a death and although there are a few items which must be dealt with immediately, the rest can be tabled for a time to give the widows time to get organized and able to emotionally handle the next steps,” Sherrard added.

Go slow, but be diligent. Try to schedule a certain chunk of time each day to devote to urgent financial tasks and stick to it. Accomplishing one task a day will give you a semblance of order and can be empowering.

“Many widows get in too much of a hurry to make everything alright, to get back to a “normal” that feels better.” says Sherrard. “What they need to realize is that they are not going to feel normal again for a considerable period of time. Grief takes time.”

Obtain death certificates. When someone dies, the death must be registered with the local or state vital records office within a matter of days, which can then issue you copies. Expect to make two dozen copies or so of the death certificates, which you’ll send to financial institutions ranging from credit card companies to your mortgage holder to your husband’s life insurer.

Danielle Howard Money Advice Wives Single Portrait EmbedBe sure the bills get paid. It’s easy to stuff them in an envelope for later, but you’ll regret it. In addition, be sharp-eyed and don’t pay any bill that looks unfamiliar. As lousy as it may sound, this is a time when all sorts of unscrupulous types surface in hopes of getting some free pickings.

Get a snapshot of your spending. This will help you prioritize expenses while you get a sense of your income, notes Danielle Howard, a Certified Financial Planner at Wealth by Design in Basalt, Colo. Make a list of all your debts in the next 30 days and create a manageable spending plan.

Some widows wind up going off the charts spending on themselves and their children soon after their husband’s death because they think it helps them ease their grief or because they have large cash inflows from life insurance death benefits.

Get your financial documents organized. If you’re fortunate, you and your husband kept your important papers in a file drawer or safe deposit box. Most of us, alas, aren’t that methodical.

You might need to do some detective work, but push yourself to get going. Draw up a list of your household’s bank accounts, brokerage accounts, retirement plans, insurance policies, loans, credit card statements and mortgages and get the most recent statements for them. Then, you’ll be able to begin taking necessary notification actions with your husband’s bank, brokerage and other financial institutions.

You’ll also need to locate copies of your joint tax returns for the past five years and your marriage certificate.

Notify your spouse’s employer, IRA financial institutions and life insurer. File for any benefits owed to you such as pension income, a 401(k) and life insurance. If you were named beneficiary to your husband’s 401(k) you may be required to take a lump-sum distribution. With an inherited IRA, you can roll over the assets into an account in your name. (Also, be sure to change the beneficiary on your own retirement accounts if you’d previously named your husband. )

Change the title and registration of any cars listed in your husband’s name at your local Department of Motor Vehicles.

Contact the Social Security Administration. You may be eligible for survivor’s benefits if you’re 60 or older or you’re younger but have kids under 16 living with you. For more, read the Social Security Survivors Benefits booklet. You can also apply for a $255 funeral expense reimbursement.

If your husband was a veteran, contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. This agency might also pay up to $2,000 in burial expenses.

And one thing not to do: Don’t make any huge financial decisions soon after your husband’s death. I’m talking about things like selling your house or business or investing a life insurance payout.

Most financial planners suggest widows refrain from investing lump sum insurance or pension payouts for at least six months, and ideally a year. Until then, the best place to stash the money is in a money-market fund or money-market account, short-term certificates of deposit or Treasury bills.

Watch out for unscrupulous people trying to get you to invest with them, too. “Understand there will be those who prey on the widow,” says Sherrard. “There are the complete strangers who scan the obituaries looking for new business.”

Even well-intentioned relatives may offer advice that works for them, but may be off base for you. Pass on it for now. Wait until your head has cleared.

This might, however, be an especially opportune time to find and work with a financial adviser, especially if your husband had been responsible for paying the bills and managing the investments (as Sandberg said hers was, in Lean In).

For unbiased guidance, look for a fee-only planner with the Certified Financial Planner designation. You might also ask for recommendations from friends or from your CPA or lawyer. And you could visit sites of The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, The Financial Planning Association, The Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards and the Women’s Choice Awards, which helps women identify advisers and firms with a strong commitment to female clients.

You may also want to use this time to bone up on the basics of personal finances. Two excellent books: Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz’s The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty and Jonathan Clements’ Money Guide. Online, visit the Investor Protection Institute’s iinvest.org site, whose free guides explain stocks, bonds and mutual funds and three fine money sites oriented toward women: DailyWorth.com, LearnVest.com and WISERwomen.org.

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