More than 50 years ago, Donald I. Rogers, the financial editor of a New York newspaper, wrote a book, “Teach Your Wife to be a Widow.”
Even though more women are working and are financially savvy today, the latest census figures show that one in four women aged 65 to 74 are widows. How many of them were truly prepared to assume the responsibility of managing the savings and investments they now depended on to make up for the sudden loss of income? Did they even know where to start?
Explaining financial matters requires patience on everybody’s part. Some “in charge” husbands are used to going it alone in their stock market activities, sharing neither their successes nor — especially — their losers. And some wives find the subject boring; they never ask about anything, and don’t want to know.
A widow’s first thoughts will not be on money matters at a time when all she can do is grieve. But if she has been named the executor in her husband’s will, she will soon be confronted with a slew of legal and financial duties. And even if she isn’t, she will be asked to provide vital financial information. What does the estate consist of? How many bank or brokerage accounts do they have? Where are they and what’s in them?
A husband’s first obligation is to make a list of all such accounts and show his wife where he is putting it. It used to be preferable to keep all financial statements in one place, but these days many monthly statements are electronic. One widow was quoted that “knowing exactly where everything was lightened the burden by 60 to 70 percent.”
That’s just the first step. Are all the accounts titled in a way to insure a quick and easy transfer into the widow’s name or trust? If a retirement account has stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, preferred stocks — whatever, she should know what those terms mean, why those particular investments are there and whether they would be suitable for her to retain. Even if an estate is left in a trust for a widow, relieving her of the burden of making investment decisions, it is important that she understands the basic vocabulary of what the trustee is doing with her money.
What her social security benefits may be is another subject that should be investigated beforehand to avoid surprise. A government website, www.aging.gov, can help.
A widow left in financial ignorance can be easy prey for a financial adviser whose personal interest may not be consistent with hers. The Bernie Madoffs and other swindlers of the world are often aided by their victims who think they are doing a favor for a naïve, newly-widowed friend by introducing her to the “wonderful” swindler who is supposedly making them rich.
There have been other books written on this subject since 1953, but the original is still available in libraries and online, and is a good place to start. Or a financial adviser who is selling nothing but advice might be helpful.