Finances: A Widow’s Nightmare
Apr 14, 2016
Seven years ago today—one week after Lev’s death, my first day alone in my empty house—I was walking across the library when I received an unexpected call from his financial advisors—three people sitting around a speaker phone in another city. I was given no forewarning, no opportunity to have my attorney on the line.
The team leader informed me that the bank (this was one of the too-big-to-fail banks, reacting to the financial catastrophe that was in high gear by April 2009) would no longer manage my investments as it had for generations of Lev’s family. I was given 30 days to decide whether to give the bank total discretion for all investments or manage them by myself with no investment advice from the bank whatsoever.
I became hysterical. Shaking, I screamed into the phone, “You hypocrites…coming to Lev’s funeral when you knew about this! He must be rolling over in his grave.” I slammed the receiver down.
Through the years, Lev repeatedly told me that I did not need to know his business because “they will be here for you.” They were not. He said, “Everything you need is in the four-drawer locked file cabinet.” It was not.
Within a few weeks, the family met with our attorney and accountant to begin the difficult process of filing for probate, settling the estate and finding new financial advisors. We quickly realized that all the years of estate planning had focused on taxes. I could not remember a conversation in 46 years of marriage where professional advisors discussed with us the difficulty of administration or the stresses on the family.
Our attorney had repeatedly assured me, “Nothing will change when Lev dies.” Everything changed. How could it not change? This was April 7, 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession, one month from the bottom of the stock market. I was a week away from Tax Day but knew nothing about income tax preparation. Assets were pouring out the door, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop the bleeding.
That first month I was completely overwhelmed. I had amnesia. I still cannot remember much that was said and done. I misplaced everything I set down, including Lev’s wallet with all his identity inside. I lived in a fog. There were days when I crawled back in bed and pulled the covers over my head. I had panic attacks. My heart raced and I could not swallow. Worry kept me from sleeping. I was terrified by my responsibilities. Lev had taken very good care of us. Now it was my turn, and I was not equipped.
There I was, unprepared for all that I must do, immediately confronted with practical and legal realities. Overnight, I moved from the role of smiling spouse and gracious hostess to that of executor, trustee, CEO and—most dreaded of all—matriarch. I am not sure that anyone had confidence in me. I certainly had none in myself.
Facts we must face
Each year, more than 700,000 women become widows in the United States, and most of them are completely unprepared for the unique grief that surrounds them like a fog for months. The new widow is impacted emotionally, physically, socially, spiritually. And financially. That person who was the most important person in her life is gone, and every day is forever changed. She usually has major financial and legal issues to address immediately, yet she has few guides to help her. No simple 1-2-3 prescription for grief recovery is adequate.
In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were almost 11 million widows above the age of 40 in the United States. Their median age at widowhood is 59.4, and they will average 14 years of widowhood. Only a small percentage will remarry.
According to Joseph P. Shapiro, writing in the September 11, 2000, issue of US News:
Two-fifths of widows fall into poverty within five years of their husbands’ deaths. Most never escape. The loss of a husband’s pension income and employer-sponsored health care, along with a reduction by about 40 percent in Social Security income, are too much to overcome.
Money matters. But other widows find themselves suddenly wealthy, especially if the couple carried large insurance policies or accumulated sizable savings. They and other widows with money can make the most of their golden years…. The baby boom generation is expected to receive history’s biggest transfer of inheritance, more than $10 trillion. And as more women work and accumulate savings of their own, the number of well-off widows is expected to grow.
Though traumatic events and natural disasters wipe out entire families from time to time, they are extraordinary exceptions to the norm. The reality is different: By their early 60s women outnumber men in the U.S. population, and by age 78 the majority of American women are widows. Women who were 65 in 2012 can expect to live another 20.5 years, while men the same age can expect almost 18 more years.
The 2014 American Community Survey estimates that there are almost 25 million women over age 65, but fewer than 20 million men. Seventy-two percent of the men, but only about 46 percent of the women, are married. About 11 percent of American men are widowed; more than 35 percent of women. The logic is inescapable: Most women marry older men, and men tend not to live as long as women. Most of us will be widows.
How can we prepare ourselves?
In my Feb. 11 blog, I suggested 13 Ways to Prepare for Widowhood. The first six on the list deal directly with financial preparation. I provided details about my own crash course in financial literacy in Widow on Wall Street. In two Easter blogs—Easter Hope: Celebrating Resurrection and Solace or Sinkhole?—I described the spiritual aspect of grief, and next week I will write about the social aspect.
But each widow’s grief is unique, each of us faces different challenges and each of us responds differently.
I’d love to hear your story.
 Newport, Frank. God Is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America. New York: Gallup Press, 2012. 125–127.
 ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates, 2009–2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates. 8 Jun 2015 <http://factfinder.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=ACS_13_5YR_DP05&src=pt>