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Everyone—all the banks, all the media—seems to have waked up at the same time to the fact that women outlive men and almost all will have to be responsible for their own financial affairs at some point in their lives. There’s not a week when I don’t see another story about it.

It’s not just the Wall Street Journal or Brown Brothers Harriman’s Women and Wealth Magazine. Recently the New York Times ran a big story, You’re a Widow. Now What?, in which two books were mentioned—On Your Own: A Widow’s Passage to Emotional and Financial Well-Being and Driving Solo: Dealing with Grief and the Business of Financial Survival.

I ordered both books and have done a quick read of each. The common denominator is that they both tell the grieving widow what she needs to do immediately, even as they recognize that the new widow is too emotionally and cognitively distressed to make analytical decisions.

My attorney repeatedly tells me that I need to live my life so that I am simultaneously prepared to die in an accident tomorrow or live to 100. Men, so do you.

I speak from experience. The widow is not going to dash off to Barnes and Noble or go online to Amazon to hunt for books that might help her within hours of her husband’s death. If she conducts a Google search for anything, it will probably be for how to plan a funeral or memorial service or celebration of life. But I’ll bet she doesn’t even do that most of the time. If she is part of a faith community, her minister, priest or rabbi will soon call and assist her and her family in planning a service. If she’s not, she will probably talk to someone at the funeral home where her husband’s body has been taken for embalming or cremation. Almost no one is looking farther down the road.

I was fortunate. My children and ministers were here within a few hours, and a beloved former pastor drove 150 miles to stay close by until after the service, completely lifting that burden from us as he went back and forth between my house and the church where the service would be held. My children went to the funeral home. I was spared all those difficult meetings.

Lev’s accountant, attorney and bankers all came to the service and called on me at home, but it was not a time to talk business. That came several weeks later.

In other words, the well-meaning advice on all the widow needs to know and do immediately is useless. She is already encountering obstacles—the death certificate, separate bank accounts she can’t touch, bills, title changes—by the time she’s ready to read a book, which is usually a gift from a caring, concerned friend, not one she bought for herself. (And if she is like me, most of those books are filled with warm, fuzzy platitudes about heaven that don’t help at all.)

When we write our memoirs of grief and when “experts” write their how-to books for widows, denial is a central theme: Despite the fact that 80 percent of us will be widows, we don’t want to acknowledge that fact while our husbands are alive. Most of us are intentionally ignorant about our financial and legal affairs, and most husbands are happy to be in charge.

When writing a book was little more than an idea in the back of my head, I shared my thoughts with my financial advisor. He was enthusiastic but said, “I don’t want to give it to widowed clients. I want to give it to male clients and say, ‘You don’t want this to happen to your wife!’ and I want to give it to new, young advisors so they will be better equipped to work with the widows of their former clients.” (A good idea, since some recent research suggests that as many as 70 percent of women change advisors after they lose their husbands, whether by death or divorce.)

Trust officers at a local bank recognized that fact when they invited me to speak to the wives and widows of their clients; and in fact, after my presentation and trust officers’ followup comments, attendees left saying they were going home to read the wills and talk to their husbands. Some of them have gone to the bank to talk to their husbands’ advisors. It was a wake-up call for a few.

But What About the Men?

Aren’t they in denial too? It is probably more difficult to accept the fact that you are going to die first than it is to acknowledge that you will probably be the one who is left behind. Sometimes, as in my case, the husband wants his wife to know more, but she dodges the discussions and the meetings. She is happy to let him be solely responsible. Sometimes—again, as in my situation—the men think everything is in order when it’s not. Lev’s famous words, none of which proved to be true: “They will be here for you. Everything you need to know is in the locked file cabinet.” But too often, the macho male deliberately excludes his wife and takes offense to any questions she asks.

The men need a book: This is the information that must be gathered now so that it will be immediately accessible to your wife, your adult children and your advisors. Perhaps it is a chapter by (or an interview with) a highly qualified professional in each of the fields where the survivors, heirs and executors will need vital information within days or weeks: chapters by a tax and probate attorney, accountant, wealth management advisor, trust officer, insurance agent, even a minister. Who else? Possibly someone who deals with family businesses and real estate and succession planning?

Perhaps it’s a workbook, with space to list everything from bank accounts and passwords to insurance to the burial plot.

My attorney repeatedly tells me that I need to live my life so that I am simultaneously prepared to die in an accident tomorrow or live to 100. Men, so do you.

For Your Bookshelf

Driving Solo, by Susan Covell Alpert, is one-third memoir, two-thirds workbook. Alpert, a successful businesswoman, had left the family’s financial affairs to her husband of 46 years. When he died of leukemia, she faced the many of the same issues that so many of us have. She wrote:

What does one do to handle the practical aspects of settling the estate after the loss of a loved one? Whom do you notify and when? What papers do you need to file, and which documents do you need to amend? How do you untangle the pieces, and what do you do with them once there’s some order? How do you tend to business when in a state of grief? I had been forced to figure all this out for myself during the darkest period of my life, when I could barely think straight, much less focus. And there had been no one-stop resource to help me sort it out. It was grueling, time-consuming, soul-ripping work. I had desperately needed someone to walk me through it all. That’s what other people needed as well, I realized. They needed me.

The memoir can be read in a few hours, but then comes “The Chaos to Control Manual,” more than 100 pages of workbook, where the reader can fill in the blanks with her family data. If you are starting from zero, or if your financial affairs are fairly simple, this may be the book for you. However, I think that much of this is information you and your husband need to gather while he is still alive and healthy. You need to know who the family attorney and accountant are immediately, not after you have time to read a book. I notified professional advisors and ministers at the crack of dawn after Lev died.

On Your Own is coauthored by Alexandra Armstrong, a financial planner who has a large clientele of women and one of her clients, Mary Donahue, a psychologist whose husband died suddenly, leaving her with two children, totally unprepared to assume financial security for the family.

Their book is 400 pages of dense text in the language of experts, though these experts write from personal experience. I struggled with the narrative. The authors developed four composite fictional widows whose stories they tell and whom they analyze chapter by chapter from “Reacting to Your Loss” to “Organizing Your Finances” to “Protecting Your Assets.” There are few workbook pages but many lists. This is for the more detailed person, with more complex financial issues. The advice is sound, and there is an excellent bibliography and resource list in the back. I skipped the narratives about the widows; I didn’t completely identify with any of them; and therefore, I tended not to pay much attention to the advice for them.

When I started writing Reclaiming Joy, a friend lent me a book by Sally S. Kleberg, of the famed King Ranch family, The Stewardship of Private Wealth: Managing Personal and Family Financial Assets. Kleberg, a financial planner in New York at the time, was divorced; and her book, in which she shares her own experience and hard-won knowledge, is especially helpful for women who suddenly acquire a windfall that they must invest and manage on their own, such as the sale of a family business, divorce settlement or life insurance after the death of a spouse. Long out of print, it is still available on Amazon.

What book would you recommend for my bookshelf for new widows?


Book News
Upcoming Events:
  • June 13, 2019 – Presenting author at the prestigious Nantucket Book Festival, 3 p.m., First Congregational Church, sponsored by the Baylor University Press. A reception and book signing will follow the program.
  • October 3, 2019 – Keynote speaker, Self Symposium, Stark College and Seminary, Corpus Christi.

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Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows was published by 1845 Books, an imprint of the Baylor University Press, in 2018. It can be ordered online here.

Photo: In the home office file room. Ella was recently overheard to say, “When I die, I expect that either the cause of death will be ruled drowning in paper or I will be buried in paper for eternity.” The deluge of paper and the necessity of filing are unrelenting and never-ending.