As a financial adviser for nearly 20 years, I’ve met and consoled several women who were devastated by the loss of their husband or the end of their marriage. While the emotional impact of no longer having their lifelong mate is hard enough, their mental anguish is often exaggerated by fear of the financial unknown.
My heart goes out to these women. I’ve found that the women who struggle the most initially haven’t been involved in their family finances, and therefore don’t know how much they have available to live on for the rest of their lives. Even if they know the amount — which sometimes is in the millions of dollars — they may lack the confidence to know whether it’s enough.
While both men and women need to have their eyes wide open when it comes to their money, it’s likely the woman will eventually be living on her own. According to a recent Gender Gap in Financial Literacy study, “the reality is that 90% of women will be solely responsible for their finances at some point in their lives due to the death of a spouse or divorce.”
Women need to have a basic understanding of how much they have and how it is allocated — property, stocks, bonds and other assets. While a 2014 study by Prudential found that 27% of married women say they “take control” of financial and retirement planning and manage it themselves, viewed another way, 73% of married women do not.
Given this gap in knowledge, here are the three basic financial measures all married women should know about their money:
Find Out Your Annual Household Income.
Most people are now gathering W-2s and other documents to file their 2017 taxes, so it’s a perfect time to determine how much you and your husband earn together. Federal tax forms require information on income from investment accounts, jobs, rental real estate, pensions or Social Security and business investments. If a marriage ends in divorce, the lists of assets and income are a critical part of the property settlement with your spouse.
Review tax returns from the past two years, and be sure to keep a copy of each tax return going forward. Couples filing a joint return both need to sign the tax documents, so don’t be afraid to ask questions if the numbers look really different from last year’s taxes.
Know the Amounts of All Assets and Debts.
At least once a year, sit down with your spouse or partner and make a list of everything you own. This includes checking and savings accounts, 401(k) retirement plans, life insurance and real estate.
It’s important to know your net worth, so next to each asset, make a note about any loans attached to each one. For example, your house may be valued at $750,000, but you may still owe $250,000 on the mortgage loan.
My husband and I examine our combined balance sheet annually to check on the progress toward our financial goals, which includes our college savings plans for our three children, as well as our retirement accounts. This exercise lets us know where we stand — and celebrate if we see we’ve made progress over the past 12 months.
An annual review also helps ensure that couples don’t forget about any investment they may have made years ago, such as an investment in a stock that may not be performing well.
Finally, use this meeting to determine ownership in each asset. For example, are your home and investment accounts owned jointly, or just in your spouse’s name? Ownership will matter if your spouse passes away and could impact how much income tax you pay each year.
Make Certain You have a Will.
If you and your spouse do not have a will, make it a priority to meet with an attorney and bring the household balance sheet to this meeting.
If there is a will, read it and make certain you know which assets you will inherit if your husband passes away. In addition, determine how much income will be available from life insurance and other sources to support you for the rest of your life. For example, if your husband’s job provides the bulk of the household income, will you need to find a job to pay the mortgage and other basic expenses?
Also, if your attorney only provides an electronic copy of the will, print out a copy and keep it in a secure place that can be accessed easily. This will enable the executor to quickly access the will, plus a printed version may be needed for probate court once you pass away.
At the very least, women with knowledge of their household income and assets, and those with a will, can minimize any unfortunate surprises if their spouse passes away or their marital situation changes. It’s stressful enough dealing with the loss of a spouse, so plan now to make certain you have the financial knowledge to handle any unforeseen events. It’s time to get down to work.
Lisa Brown, CFP®, CIMA®, is author of "Girl Talk, Money Talk, The Smart Girl's Guide to Money After College” and “Girl Talk, Money Talk II, Financially Fit and Fabulous in Your 40s and 50s". She is the Practice Area Leader for corporate professionals and executives at wealth management firm CI Brightworth (opens in new tab) in Atlanta. Advising busy corporate executives on their finances for nearly 20 years has been her passion inside the office. Outside the office she's an avid runner, cyclist and supporter of charitable causes focused on homeless children and their families.
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