You’re a Widow. Now What?

Susan Covell Alpert was crushed by grief when her 71-year-old husband, Larry, died of leukemia in 2008. Adding to her misery, a tidal wave of financial decisions and tasks demanded the new widow’s attention at a time when she could barely think straight.

Like many couples, Susan and Larry, who were married for 46 years, had divided the financial chores. Larry handled the investments, and Susan paid some bills. Though Ms. Alpert owned a business arranging travel incentives for large corporations, she was not prepared to manage the household’s financial affairs.

“I knew every stock, and I knew where everything was,” said Ms. Alpert, 78. “But I didn’t know what to do with it all.”

Nor did she know what the investments were worth. Rather than holding securities in a brokerage account, Mr. Alpert had opted for paper certificates, which he kept in his desk in their home in Newport Beach, Calif. Ms. Alpert hired a bookkeeper and a financial adviser, and it took them a year to determine the value of the more than 120 certificates, she said.

Losing a spouse after decades of sharing your lives together can envelope anyone in a suffocating cloud of grief. Adding to that is the stress of now handling the financial affairs of your loved one, or possibly even the entire home if that spouse oversaw those household chores.

After Susan Covell Alpert lost her husband to leukemia in 2008 after 46 of wedded bliss, she was overwhelmed with juggling the responsibilities. She hired an accountant, a financial advisor, and a grief counselor. In 2013, she opened a consulting business for fellow widows and wrote a book entitled, Driving Solo: Dealing With Grief and the Business of Financial Survival. Alexandra Armstrong, a certified financial planner in Washington, says that widows should wait six months before making any dramatic financial decisions such as selling the home or investing insurance money into annuities. But at the top of the list (as soon as emotionally possible), grieving widows should notify the Social Security Administration, call the life insurance company and pay important bills.

Women statically live longer than men, so more women become widows rather than men becoming widowers. According to the Census Bureau about 34% of women in 2016 over the age of 65 were widows, while only 12% of men were widowers in the same age bracket. Knowing what to do when the time comes to handle a deceased spouse’s affairs can make the grief just a little less exhaustive.

See Susan B. Garland, You’re a Widow. Now What?, New York Times, April 11, 2019.

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