Prepare for the unexpected: Widowhood

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The statistics are telling: Women tend to outlive their spouses by many years, and only one-third of women over 65 are married.i A longer life expectancy, coupled with the fact that many eventually end up living on their own, means that women generally have a greater need for retirement income.

While this is not a pleasant topic to discuss, it’s an important one. Planning for the possibility of a future without your spouse can help you avoid tremendous stress and financial difficulty in the future. This can be especially true if you have children or other family members who depend on you – financially or otherwise.

Through careful financial review, estate planning, and earnings and asset protection, you’ll be better prepared in the event that you find yourself on your own one day. Follow these steps to protect yourself and your family:

Step 1: Get organized.

No matter the phase of life you’re in, don’t wait to get yourself organized; get all of your records together now, and regularly update them. In particular, you’ll want to be sure you have the following:

  • All of your insurance policies, mortgages, debts and retirement plans
  • A list of account numbers for bank and brokerage accounts
  • Copies of deeds, titles, wills, living wills, powers of attorney, birth and marriage certificates, and passports

Generally, you should keep originals of these items in a safe deposit box at a bank. However, originals of wills should be kept by your local registrar of wills or your attorney (originals of wills should not be stored in a bank safe deposit box, because the box could be sealed temporarily after the death of the will's owner). Also, consider having notarized copies of these documents on file with any adult children you may have.

Also, be sure to review your investments and assets on at least an annual basis, to review their growth potential and risk probability. Make sure you keep your list of beneficiaries updated as well.

Step 2: Seek professional advice.

Estate plans. Many people think that an estate plan is only for the wealthy when, in fact, having one can ease the burden on beneficiaries during what is already a difficult time. Contact an attorney who specializes in wills or estate law to help you do the following:

  • Ensure proper titling of assets
  • Help minimize taxes and what is subject to probate
  • Create a clearly defined plan for heirs to follow
  • Help distribute assets to beneficiaries quickly
  • Preserve assets for later generations
  • Ensure your (or your deceased spouse’s) wishes are carried out

Savings and investing plans. Depending on how you and your spouse handle your finances (jointly, or perhaps one person is in charge of a certain area), you may not feel comfortable adjusting your financial goals. If that’s the case, consider consulting with a professional financial advisor, and make sure that both you and your spouse go to those consultations together. An advisor can help you understand the numbers and how you can continue to reach your long-term goals, such as retirement or saving for an education.

Step 3: Continue to grow your nest egg.

While your finances may change drastically due to the death of your spouse, saving for retirement should continue to be one of your top financial priorities. If you’re working or planning to re-enter the workforce, set aside a regular amount of money out of each paycheck. If you do it as soon as you get paid, you will likely not miss the money. Your employer’s 401(k) or 403(b) plan can offer an excellent way to save for retirement. If your employer does not offer a retirement savings plan, open an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

When planning for retirement, you’ll need to take in the big picture, which includes all of the savings and investment vehicles available to you, as well as what your spouse may leave behind. Note how your risk tolerance, market volatility and inflation can all factor into how you manage your investments. Regularly revisit your accounts. If you don’t feel confident planning your retirement strategy, ask your employee benefits department for help, or seek guidance from a professional financial advisor.

Step 4: Prepare for emergencies.

This doesn’t change: you always need to be ready for those so-called rainy days, when something as simple as a major appliance stops working or there is a medical emergency. A rainy day fund is a reserve of cash you can dip into in the event of financial hardship. A general rule of thumb is to have enough cash set aside to cover at least six months of living expenses.

The best place to keep a rainy day fund is in an account where your money will be safe and easily accessible, such as a money market account at a bank. If and when you withdraw money from your rainy day fund, try to restore the balance quickly so you'll have enough cash available for later use if needed.

Step 5: Get protection.

It goes without saying that an interruption in earnings can cause tremendous financial distress for you and your family. Therefore, it pays to obtain insurance.

Health insurance. Few things can have such a devastating impact on a family as a serious illness. If you do not have health insurance through your employer, inquire about insurance companies at your state insurance department.

Long-term care insurance. The costs of long-term care can pose a major threat to your financial security and quality of life. Long-term care insurance helps defray these costs, so you should consider such protection as you near retirement.

Disability insurance. In the event that you are unable to work for an extended period of time due to sickness or injury, disability insurance can provide income. Check with your employer or state insurance department to learn more about it.

Life insurance. In the event of death – yours or your spouse’s – you’ll need some form of income for the surviving partner and any dependents. Life insurance will provide a tax-free lump sum for survivors. While your employer may offer a certain amount of group life insurance, depending on your needs both you and your spouse or partner should each own up to 6-10 times your annual salaries in protection. However, the appropriate amount of insurance for you depends on your needs and personal circumstances.

Step 6: Check out your spouse’s benefits.

If you have already reached Social Security's definition of “full retirement age,” (age 65 to 67, depending on when you were born) you're entitled to your deceased spouse's full benefit. However, if you're at least 60 but not yet at full retirement age, your payout will be between 71% and 99% of your spouse’s benefit. One exception: A widow or widower of any age with a child 16 or younger is entitled to a 75% payout. For more information, visit www.socialsecurity.gov.

Move forward.
As tough as it may be to think about becoming a widow, preparing yourself for the possibility can help insulate you from financial struggle. Carefully thought out retirement and estate plans, along with a constant eye on the future, can help alleviate stress, headaches and heartaches should the day arrive.

Need more information?
Visit tiaa-cref.org for broader Financial Education, including a variety of resources to help you improve your financial well-being.

i Ginita Wall and Candace Bahr, "Why Women Need Retirement Planning More Than Men Do.” (2008) Women’s Institute for Financial Education, www.wife.org

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