How Women Can Plan for Outliving Their Husbands

Widow reviewing bills
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Some 80% of married women outlive their husbands, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Unfortunately, that death brings with it another stressful event: almost half of all women who wind up widows say they wish they would have taken a more active role in their finances when their spouses were alive.

The research—combined with longevity trends—“really underscores the need for women not to abdicate,” Katie Libbe, Allianz Life vice president of consumer insights, said. “Just because you’re not into it, doesn’t mean you can just delegate and ignore it.” 

If you’re worried about outliving your spouse, here are the top seven financial moves you should make now.

Start the Conversation Now.

If talking about money doesn’t come naturally for you—or if this will be the first time you’re asking for more involvement in the family finances—then soft-pedal your approach, Lili Vasileff, a certified financial planner and mediator, recommends. Choose a moment when neither one of you is stressed, and use language like: “I need to be able to take care of things financially if something were to happen to you.” Or: “We built this together—we should share in that, share the concerns, and problem-solve together.”

If you’re dismissed or met with resistance, inviting a third party into the conversation—like a financial advisor, estate planning attorney, or an accountant—can smooth the waters.

Establish a Relationship With a Financial Advisor

If you and your spouse have a financial advisor, but you’re not involved in the relationship, it’s time to start attending the meetings and joining the discussion. This is something that the advisor should welcome and encourage—the fact that assets tend to leave financial advisory firms after the death of a spouse is a problem advisors are actively trying to solve.

Getting the lay of the financial land may not be something you’re able to accomplish in a single session. At a basic level, you want to understand what you earn, what you own, and what you owe—in other words, income, assets, and liabilities. You want to know how those assets are invested today and what the financial plan has laid out for making sure you have enough to live on in the future, including life insurance, long-term care insurance, pension income, and the strategy to take Social Security. 

Practice the Day-to-Day and Plan for “Just in Case”

Once you know the big picture, you need to take a turn managing the day-to-day tasks that go with your finances, including bill payment. Sit down with your spouse and do it side-by-side until you get comfortable with it (it doesn’t matter whether you do this electronically or the old-fashioned way, though electronically may make for an easier paper trail). Then take a turn yourself. 

Just in case something happens to either one of you, create a master document with all of your accounts’ information. Include where and how to access the information, including passwords for online accounts. This is especially important if any of these accounts are only in your spouse’s name. In that master document, also include where to locate tax returns, wills, living wills, trusts, deeds, titles, your marriage license, and military discharge papers—all of which you may need to apply for benefits. 

Create a “What If” Budget

Once you're fully aware of your financial situation, you need to plan for any changes to the first variable upon the death of a spouse, because your income could drop significantly, according to Libbe. Research from the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) shows women are 80% more likely to fall into poverty in retirement than men. And the U.S. Census Bureau shows widowed women are twice as likely to live in poverty than widowed men.

To pull this budget together, gather all your current sources of income from jobs, Social Security pensions, and investments, and calculate what would happen if something happened to your spouse. Then, create a new cash flow statement. What are your current expenses—both necessary and discretionary—and will you have the income to support them? If not, where will that money come from? Make sure health care and the house are included in your calculations, too.

When calculating your cash flow, be sure to ask yourself what expenses will have to go and which ones can stay. Consider these questions: Will I be able to keep existing health benefits? Should I keep the house?

Check Your Credit

When you lose a spouse, you lose the ability to jointly apply for things like car loans and credit cards. That’s why it’s important that you maintain a solid credit score of your own. Go to one of the three major credit bureaus to check your score. If it’s not in the mid-700s or better, work on it by paying all your bills on time, paying down your credit cards, and reconsidering applications for credit cards you may not need.

Next, go to ​annualcreditreport.com and pull your credit report for free, making sure all the information on it is accurate and belongs to you. Fighting to raise your credit score isn’t easy—but it’s even harder if you have to do it right after you’ve lost your spouse, so it's best to be prepared.