personal finance

Widows Move Forward on Their Own – But Not Alone

Taking the right first steps and finding the right financial help can make a big difference during a difficult transition.

Widowhood is an expanding club that no one wants to join. However, more than 1 million women enter the growing ranks of the nearly 15 million widows and widowers in America each year.

  • The median age a woman becomes a widow is 59.4 for a first marriage and 60.3 for a second marriage, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Half of widows over 65 will outlive their husbands by 15 years. 
  • Eighty percent of men die married, yet 80% of women die single.

The death of a spouse is often even more devastating for the survivor if the deceased spouse was the financially knowledgeable partner in the relationship. The death of a spouse unleashes a deluge of financial tasks to sort through, even while dealing with the grief and sadness that often accompanies losing a spouse. Some widows experience “brain freeze,” which can include difficulty remembering details, shorter attention spans and difficulty making decisions.

As bad as the emotional trauma can be, the financial trauma can be comparable and can last for much longer, especially if the widower does not take the right financial steps in the immediate aftermath of their spouse’s death.

According to Laura Cowan, named a “Top Woman Attorney in New York” by The New York Times,  “For widows, paying attention to the details becomes more critical than ever. Without your spouse to fall back on, your margin for error disappears. The financial and emotional implications of settling his estate are often overwhelming. Hiring the right professionals, such as a trust and estate lawyer and financial adviser, is key.”

First Things First: Start with a Checklist

There is so much to do, and it can be confusing to figure out what you should do first and what can wait. The best way to make headway, reduce stress and lift this burden is to make a plan, which includes creating a checklist of all the financial paperwork and steps that need to be taken as you sort through the details of your spouse's death. These checklists and resources will help you collect and organize the information required to settle your spouse’s estate and handle all of the affairs.   

The second part of this plan looks further into the future and includes calculations that will help make certain that you can comfortably live out your retirement years, and beyond, without the fear of outliving your savings.  A Certified Financial Planner™ professional can build this financial roadmap, ensuring that you will have enough money for every stage of your life. They can also help you deal with the overwhelming amount of work related to sorting through and organizing all of your financial documents to settle your husband’s estate. They can transfer assets to your name, close accounts, update beneficiaries and plan for your future needs. 

Next, Take a Close Look at Your Adviser

Many widows already have a relationship with a financial adviser upon their spouse’s death, but end up moving to another person who feels like a better fit. According to some estimates, over 80% of widows change the financial adviser originally chosen by their spouses. In many cases, the adviser had a relationship with the deceased spouse and never fully involved the female half in the financial-planning and investing processes.

Over a million people across the United States call themselves financial advisers, but not all are created equal. There are advisers, brokers, broker-dealers, certified financial planners, chartered financial analysts, certified investment management analysts, investment advisers, and wealth managers, to name a few. Some financial advisers offer financial planning services but not investment management services. Others manage investments but provide little financial planning advice. 

Understandably, choosing an adviser can be very confusing and overwhelming. Finding the right person or firm may take some effort, but the investment of time will be well worth it in terms of your peace of mind.

Interview only financial advisers who are fiduciaries. A fiduciary has a responsibility to act in your best interest by giving you independent, unbiased advice. Unfortunately, the financial advisory industry does not require advisers to be fiduciaries. You should be sure to ask for — and get — a written engagement that requires them to have a fiduciary obligation to you.


Look for an experienced financial adviser who has their CFP® (Certified Financial Planner™) designation, as a CFP® certificant is held to strict ethical and performance standards. According to the CFP® Board, these professionals “are trained to help you develop a comprehensive strategy to reach your short- and long-term financial goals … from planning for retirement to saving for children’s college.” To maintain this designation, an adviser must also adhere to an ethics policy and meet continuing education requirements. 

The way that your financial adviser gets paid also matters. There are numerous ways financial advisers charge for their services, but the most objective and unbiased financial advisers are fee-only. A non-fee-only adviser can receive commissions, kickbacks or incentives from their company based on meeting sales goals by selling you products that may not serve your needs or are inappropriate for your situation. There is an inherent conflict of interest if the adviser is not fee-only. 

Finally, Listen to Your Gut

It is also crucial to choose a trustworthy financial adviser with whom you can have an honest conversation without fear of being judged. They must listen to you and take your goals, risk tolerance, objectives and financial and personal circumstances into account. Go with the adviser who not only fulfills all of these requirements, but is someone you like.

Yes, this is a "gut" thing. Our gut does not lie. Working with a financial professional requires you to be vulnerable about highly personal aspects of your life — especially in the event of losing a spouse — and you want to like that person. 

About the Author

Stacy Francis, CFP®, CDFA®, CES™

President & CEO, Francis Financial Inc.

Stacy is a nationally recognized financial expert and the President and CEO of Francis Financial Inc., which she founded 15 years ago. She is a Certified Financial Planner® (CFP®) and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® (CDFA®) who provides advice to women going through transitions, such as divorce, widowhood and sudden wealth. She is also the founder of Savvy Ladies™, a nonprofit that has provided free personal finance education and resources to over 15,000 women.

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