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Be a money-wise widow
Taking control of retirement finances gives peace of mind even in grief.
September 27, 2004: 5:52 PM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - For most new widows, the only thing that rivals grief is fear.

Planning for the loss of a spouse means more than making service arrangements; you will need to figure out how to provide for yourself in the long years ahead. And as with most things, doing it sooner rather than later works to your advantage.

"You have to realize you'll be on your own, at some point in your life," says Cindy Hounsell, executive director of the Women's Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER).

"Learn how to take care of your own future, no matter what."

Even if the many "what if" scenarios you and your spouse dream up don't come close enough to reality, at the very least you'll be better off financially if you are aware of what your options are.

Organize, then strategize

One of the best things to do after your husband dies, if not before, is to organize your financial documents and do a thorough inventory of your assets and liabilities.

You can cull this information from:

  • Past tax returns
  • Brokerage and bank statements
  • Your husband's accountant or lawyer
  • The benefits administrator at your husband's job who can explain the details of his pension or 401(k) and any life insurance plans.

You should also contact the Social Security Administration to apply for survivor benefits. If you would prefer to speak to someone, call (800) 772-1213 to make an appointment to meet with someone at your local SSA office.

If you and your husband were already collecting Social Security benefits before he died you will only receive the greater of the two benefits. You will need to have been married for at least 9 months to qualify for his benefits.

Those younger than retirement age can also receive his Social Security benefits if certain requirements apply such as you're disabled or are caring for children under 18.

Widows can also tap into their husband's pension or 401(k) plans with relative ease but Deborah Chalfie, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, says IRAs have no spousal rights attached to them.

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First check to see if you are indeed the primary beneficiary of your late husband's account. If your children are listed then they must disclaim their right to the money and issue a disclaimer within nine months of your husband's death.

After you've accessed your situation the next step is to calculate your regular income, including Social Security survivor benefits and pension or 401(k) payments. If he chose a joint survivor's benefit, you'll draw a pension benefit equal to half of what he would have received.

You'll also need to estimate your living expenses. Hounsell says that, on average, women will need at least 80 percent of their current pre-tax income in order maintain the same standard of living.

Housing costs should also be factored into your savings budget as renters often incur higher costs than homeowners.

WISER's Web site links to an online calculator that can help you determine how much you will need to save.

Accept help, but not blindly

Your children, of course, will have no shortage of advice, but you may be better seeking help from a third party.

"Love your children but don't let them run your life," says David Latko, author of "Financial Strategies for Today's Widow."

"They are good at emotional support but not financial support." Latko says that in too many instances the children are thinking what's in their own financial best interest.

Working with a certified financial planner can help you finally piece together your overall retirement picture. If you choose this option, make sure they are registered with the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards.

Start by interviewing a few different planners in your area and ask each for references. A fee-based CFP may also be a better choice as they are only selling you their time and not any investment products for which he or she receives a commission.

Still, Latko advises women against making immediate decisions right after their husband passes.

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"Stop and breathe. Take some time, say about 90 days, and don't do anything," he states. "That doesn't mean unplug the phone and pull the curtains, but take some time to educate yourself."

While you have nine months to settle any estate taxes with Uncle Sam, don't be in a rush to pay off that levy or any other bills as you may be spending all your cash on hand.

Widows, Latko says, don't like to owe anyone anything, and are often too quick to jump the gun. That's why many experts caution widows against making major financial decisions within a year after their husbands die.

If you've already been slammed with a life-altering event, gather all your information, take time to plan your next steps, then gradually make the necessary changes to secure your future.  Top of page

--The original version of this article was published February 10, 2000.

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