Widows Share Their Financial Strategies

Dealing with loss is overwhelming. Preparation helps take away financial headaches so you can focus on yourself.

A widow looks out a window, holding a portrait of her spouse.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

For widows, having to deal with a traumatic personal loss plus the finances and other tasks of daily living can be overwhelming. The best way to ease the burden is to “be involved with your finances ahead of time so you only have to deal with the grief,” says Alexandra Armstrong, a certified financial planner and co-author with Mary R. Donahue of On Your Own: A Widow’s Guide to Emotional and Financial Well-Being

Armstrong herself became a widow in 2023, and when I interviewed several of my women friends who had become widowed in the past few years, all three seconded her advice. 

“If you really want to do a good thing for yourself, make a list ahead of time, keep it one place and take it out once in a while to add to it,” says my friend Elinor, whose husband, Walter, died in 2022. “That would have made things easier for me.”

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In addition to financial information, Elinor recommends keeping a record of big-ticket household items: “When does the roof have to be replaced? How old are the appliances? What’s the contact info for the plumber and the electrician?” 

Access to passwords is also a “huge issue,” says my friend Susan. When her techie husband, John, died unexpectedly in 2018, she was shut out of his computer and all his Apple devices. “It took me close to a year and a half to resolve all the electronic stuff,” says Susan. “A lot I had to give up on.” 

Because Elinor had access to passwords for her husband’s e-mail and other accounts, she kept them open for at least six months and was able to monitor them for notices of things she needed to take care of. “When all I was getting was junk, I knew I had done my job,” she says.

My friend Lorna urges couples to think seriously about housing options as they age. She and her husband, Peter, who suffered from ALS, had sold their home and moved to a continuing care retirement community. But when Peter died shortly after they moved in 2019, a CCRC wasn’t suitable for Lorna. “It took me four years to come up with a place I can think of as home,” says Lorna. She eventually purchased a house that the previous owner had outfitted to age in place

Susan regrets that she and her husband didn’t talk about funeral arrangements. John served as a Green Beret and had bought a burial plot in a military cemetery, but he had never discussed the service he wanted. When the time came, says Susan, “the choices had to be solely mine.” 

All three of my friends have found it beneficial to work with financial advisers — and they prefer to work with them in person. After about a year, Lorna switched from her husband’s adviser to a new one because “I wanted someone who would call me back.” 

Armstrong, who is founder and CEO emeritus of her own financial advisory firm, is sympathetic on both counts. “Any new relationship with an adviser should be personal,” she says. “A widow should say that up front and ask whether the adviser would be comfortable doing that.” (Search for an adviser through the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.) 

Advisers can also be helpful for sorting out thorny tax issues, such as your new filing status, any medical expenses for the deceased spouse and rules for inherited IRAs, which are “ridiculously complex,” says David Silversmith, senior tax manager with Eisner Advisory Group in Melville, N.Y. 

On a personal note, Susan advises giving yourself at least two years to adjust to your new situation. “I think you have to go through a cycle of holidays first,” she says. As time goes on, “you feel the loss as an ache rather than a sword through the heart.”

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Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.