Boost your money smarts and improve your financial picture with these expert strategies.
It can feel like your world has turned upside down when you find yourself suddenly single after years of marriage. But you aren’t going through it alone.
The average age of widowhood is 59 for women and 61 for men. The divorce rate for people ages 50 and up has doubled in the past 25 years. And about one in five adults ages 65 to 74 lives by themselves.
In the immediate aftermath of a divorce or death, you’ll be bombarded with decisions that have to be made quickly—many of them about money. If you’re getting a divorce, you’ll need to close joint accounts and open new ones in your own name, divide up assets, and figure out if any alimony is owed.
If you’re a widow, the to-do list is a bit longer: You’ll need to get a death certificate and notify the Social Security Administration, your spouse’s employer, your mortgage holder, insurers, and credit card companies and other financial institutions.
You’ll also have to change the name on key accounts, including the title and registration of your car. You’ll collect any money that is due to you, such as a life insurance payout. And you’ll also need to execute your spouse’s will.
Once you’ve ticked those most urgent boxes, there are more money concerns to deal with. But try not to get overwhelmed. You’re not on the clock, and there’s no strict timetable to follow.
Instead, use this guide to take things step by step. We promise there’s an upside to all this effort.
“When you’re financially fit, it’s so liberating,” says personal finance expert Kerry Hannon, author of Money Confidence: Really Smart Financial Moves for Newly Single Women.
Step #1: Talk to a Financial Advisor
The biggest mistake Hannon sees newly single adults make is “the paralysis of doing absolutely nothing. You have to take the initial step of pulling documents together to find out what you have to work with.”
The good news? You don’t have to go it alone. If you’re confused about your assets and retirement plan—or need help strategizing for the future—a financial planner can help. Hannon recommends fee-only advisors. This means they don’t make a commission off how you invest, so there’s no conflict of interest.
Ask trusted friends, past coworkers, or family members for a recommendation. Or find a certified financial planner (CFP) in your area using the search tools at letsmakeaplan.org.
Someone with the title CFP is also a fiduciary, which means they’ve taken an oath to make decisions in your best interest. “It doesn’t have to be super expensive to hire someone to get a beat on what’s going on with your finances,” Hannon says.
Your financial advisor may also be able to help you navigate complex subjects like Social Security. A widow age 60 or older or a surviving divorced spouse, for example, is eligible for monthly payments if the deceased qualified for Social Security benefits—but the fine print can get very complicated.
“No question is stupid,” she adds. “You should feel comfortable talking to this person, otherwise it’s not going to be productive.”
Step #2: Got a Payout? Don’t Invest It Right Away
“Particularly for widows, this is a time when unscrupulous people come at you with ways to invest your money,” Hannon says.
She suggests you sit tight and wait about a year to make any big money moves. “Use that year to ramp up your financial education. Start a money book club with your friends, or go online to financial education sites,” Hannon says. One she especially likes is Wiser Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement, which offers resources for divorce and widowhood.
Step #3: Create a New Budget
Write down your recurring fixed expenses, like mortgage or rent, car payments, utilities, groceries, internet and phone service, and health care costs, Hannon suggests.
If you have questions about your Medicare eligibility or coverage, start with medicare.gov. Or contact your State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) to speak with a free health insurance coverage counselor.
Next, Hannon recommends you look at what you spent the year before as a guide and find opportunities to trim back. For example, do you really need three TV streaming services? Then look at upcoming expenses for the next year—travel plans and the like—so you can start putting money aside as needed.
This is another area where your financial planner can help get you on track.
Step #4: Build an Emergency Fund
Speaking of expenses, you also need to be prepared for the unexpected ones. This includes home or car repairs, and vet bills if you have pets. Not to mention medical bills for you, which can be hard to predict and shockingly pricey, Hannon says.
“You don’t want to have an unforeseen life event throw you for a loop,” she says, so she recommends you try to save up about a year’s worth of expenses. “It’s imperative for women, because we generally live longer than men.” The last decade of life in particular, she adds, can be a real money drain.
Socking away that much money may seem like an insurmountable task, but Hannon suggests you just do what you can, and automate it. “Set aside $50, $200, whatever you can get away with, and automatically transfer it into a special savings account,” she says.
Step #5: Set Up Some Safety Nets
If you’re still working, disability insurance will protect you from income loss due to an illness or injury. Often workplaces offer it as part of a benefits package. Keep in mind that many policies will only cover you up until retirement. After that, you may be able to apply for disability benefits through Social Security.
If you have children or other dependents, Hannon suggests looking into term life insurance, which is significantly cheaper than whole life insurance but will still help buoy your loved ones if you pass. The earlier you sign up for this, the better (read: less expensive), but there are plenty of policies available for seniors, including a combination life insurance–long-term care policy.
Word to the wise: These policies can be maddening to understand. Before you sign up for something, make sure you understand the fine print. You’re smart to call in a CFP who knows the ins and outs of insurance.
Step #6: Update Your Will
If you and your spouse already created one, you just need to go through and change the beneficiaries so he or she is no longer listed.
“This is also a good time to check your credit report,” says Hannon. “Especially for a divorce, you want to make sure none of your former spouse’s stuff is still reflected on your credit report.”
If your spouse was your only beneficiary, you’ll need to decide who to assign power of attorney to, and who you can trust to make health care and end-of-life decisions for you in the event you become incapacitated. Again, a CFP or other fiduciary financial advisor can help you do this.
Step #7: Consider New Digs
“Women especially tend to want to hang on to the family home—maybe to give the children security or for sentimental reasons. But it’s usually not the best idea,” says Hannon.
Housing costs can be a huge drain on your budget, she explains. “Really think hard about your living situation. If there’s a way you can downsize or streamline, do so,” she advises.
To make the task less intimidating, check out these strategies to make downsizing as easy as possible.
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