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.
That was just one of numerous issues that Ms. Alpert confronted. Besides the settlement of the estate, there were insurance companies to call, banks to visit, credit cards to cancel, documents to collect and her husband’s business partnership to unwind.
“I was in the most fragile part of my life, and there was no time to breathe,” she said.
Ms. Alpert decided to approach the “chaos” as she would a business. She spent six to eight hours a day for many months tackling the paperwork — color-coded file folders and all. A grief therapist advised her to get dressed every day and to eat regularly.
“She also made me promise not to go into my home office one day a week,” Ms. Alpert said.
In 2013, Ms. Alpert opened a consulting business to advise other widows on handling the practical aspects of settling an estate. She also wrote a book, “Driving Solo: Dealing With Grief and the Business of Financial Survival.”
A spouse’s death is one of the most emotionally wrenching events in a person’s life. Because they live longer, women are more likely than men to lose a spouse. Roughly 34 percent of women 65 and older were widows in 2016, compared with about 12 percent of men, according to the Census Bureau.
The financial challenges can be especially daunting for women. Husbands tend to earn more than their wives, and the end of that income can be a big blow. And in more cases than not, husbands oversee the household finances, often leaving their widows scrambling to sort everything out. If that’s not enough, many widows are immediately deluged by tasks that come with settling an estate.
“I was buried in boxes filled with legal paperwork, tax paperwork, trust paperwork, and I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Ellen Speyer, whose husband died in 2003.
As tempting as it may be to charge ahead, however, new widows should postpone making major — and irreversible — financial decisions for six months to a year, said Alexandra Armstrong, a certified financial planner in Washington. Those decisions include selling a house, lending money to relatives or paying off a mortgage. It also means resisting sales pitches to plow insurance proceeds into annuities or other investments that tie up funds perhaps forever.
“Widows may not recognize that they are in a state of shock, and they will not make wise decisions,” said Ms. Armstrong, author of “On Your Own: A Widow’s Passage to Emotional and Financial Well-Being.” “They should not jump into anything until they have a grip on their financial situation.”
The To-Do List
Surviving spouses can alleviate some stress by attacking the to-do list in stages, Ms. Armstrong said. At the top: Notify the Social Security Administration, call the life insurance company and pay important bills, such as those for utilities and property insurance premiums. If a husband was still working when he died, his widow should check with his employer for any unpaid salary, accrued vacation days and retirement plans. She also may be eligible for veterans’ benefits.
One of Ms. Alpert’s first moves was to name her two adult daughters as her agents for her financial and health care powers of attorney.
When it comes to insurance proceeds, Ms. Armstrong said, widows typically can choose between a lump sum and monthly payouts. The decision, she said, will depend on the widow’s immediate cash needs and whether she could earn more than the payout by investing the lump sum. She said a widow should ask an objective adviser to review her overall financial picture before she decided.
By choosing the right Social Security claiming strategy based on her age and income, a surviving spouse can increase her benefit. “This is as close to free money as you can get,” said Jeffrey Levine, chief executive of BluePrint Wealth Alliance in Garden City, N.Y.
A widow who waits until her full retirement age of 66 (for those born between 1945 and 1956) can claim the full survivor benefit, which is 100 percent of her husband’s benefit. She is eligible for a survivor benefit at 60, but it will be reduced for each month she claims before 66. If both spouses are at least 70 when the husband dies, a wife should switch to a survivor benefit if her benefit is smaller than his.
Younger spouses have more options to maximize benefits, Mr. Levine said. For example, a surviving spouse who is the lower earner can create an income stream by collecting her own retirement benefit when she is eligible at 62 and switch to the higher survivor benefit when she turns 66. Taking her retirement benefit early will not reduce the survivor benefit.
A wife who is eligible for a higher retirement benefit should take the opposite tack: She can collect a reduced survivor benefit early and switch at 70 to her own retirement benefit.
Meanwhile, a spouse who inherits an individual retirement account has several choices. If she is younger than 70½ and does not need the money, she could, with the help of a brokerage firm, transfer her husband’s account directly into her own I.R.A. and then update the beneficiaries. She will not be required to take annual distributions until she is 70½, thus extending the time the funds can grow tax-free.
If a widow is younger than 59½ and may need the money, she can transfer the assets into a new inherited I.R.A. She can take taxable distributions without having to pay the 10 percent penalty imposed on early withdrawers, Mr. Levine said.
Making Financial Decisions
For a preliminary assessment of cash flow, a widow can tote up sources of income and fixed expenses. But for a deeper dive, Ms. Alpert recommends adding a financial adviser to a team of professionals. While she and her husband already had an estate lawyer and an accountant, a friend helped her find a financial services firm. When she met with two young men from the firm, “I told them, ‘Take care of me like you would take care of your mother,’” she said.
The financial adviser may reposition investments to provide additional income, Ms. Armstrong said. Though each case is different, she said, “I believe in buying good-quality stocks where there is a good potential for rising dividends.” If Ms. Armstrong decides an annuity is a nice fit, she will analyze the oft-hidden costs of an array of complex products.
Kathleen M. Rehl, an author, and a speaker who helps financial planners address the needs of widows, cautioned that widows often changed advisers because many do not understand a widow’s grief.
“A widow should find an adviser who listens to her and does not try to rush her,” said Ms. Rehl, of St. Petersburg, Fla.
Ms. Speyer and her husband, Ronald, had been seeing a financial adviser at a large brokerage firm who, she said, “did not take my questions seriously.” Shortly before Mr. Speyer died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 57, they switched to an adviser at a small firm.
“She was very kind and very thoughtful,” said Ms. Speyer, 71, a therapist in Irvine, Calif.
For years, Mr. Speyer had monitored the overall finances and transferred what his wife needed to pay household bills. “I didn’t have to worry when I turned up the heat or went to the market,” Ms. Speyer said. “But I didn’t know the total cost of everything against our savings and income.”
After her husband died, Ms. Speyer lost the income from a consulting firm he owned. Though moving to a smaller house would have freed up cash, she wanted to reduce the disruption for her 10-year-old daughter, she said.
The adviser, whom Ms. Speyer still sees, diversified her portfolio and invested the proceeds from a life insurance policy. The adviser also created a budget and a long-term investment plan.
To help make ends meet, Ms. Speyer received help from her parents, dipped into savings and “went into overdrive” at work, she said. Using personal-finance software that her brother installed, Ms. Speyer monitored her spending and reduced her discretionary expenses, such as new clothes, travel, and entertainment.
Sixteen years later, Ms. Speyer said she hoped to keep her finances on a firm footing by postponing retirement indefinitely.
“It took a long time to get back the feeling of security,” she said. “I feel very proud about what I have accomplished.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.