Death of a Spouse: Finances amid grief

Nearly 1.5 million Americans faced the death of a their spouse in 2019 – that figure likely increased dramatically in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19. The majority of those surviving spouses faced genuine financial challenges, while also dealing with grief and loss. For those who were over age 60 (about 1.2 million in 2019), recently widowed older adults face higher poverty rates, greater housing cost burdens, as well as other critical financial challenges. 

A new guide, “Help for Surviving Spouses,” available from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, alerts newly-widowed individuals to key steps that will help them find a new financial equilibrium. The 24-page guide provides user-friendly information, checklists, and places to make notes, serving as the all-purpose workbook that can get the new widow(er) through the financial tasks and adjustments that are needed.

The first weeks and months after a death are often overwhelming, with grief making it difficult to stay organized or even remember what needs to be done. Having a workbook can help individuals keep track of what has been done and what remains to be done. If you know a new widow(er) or frequently come in contact with people in this situation, consider printing the workbook for them; if you can, offer to help them get started.

Dealing with a deceased spouse’s debts. One key tip for surviving spouses is to be cautious about paying debts belonging to your loved one. In many cases, survivors are not legally responsible for debts belonging solely to a deceased individual. Learn more, and consider seeking professional guidance if you are unsure. Even if you feel a moral obligation to pay the debt, consider first how that will impact your financial situation going forward. If paying that debt leaves you in a financially precarious situation, it may not actually be “the right thing to do.”

Another reason for caution, with debt collection and all other mail, phone calls, and emails, is that families of newly-deceased individuals can be easy targets for fraud. Before even considering any debt, ask for evidence to prove it is a legitimate debt that has not already been paid.

Take advantage of available resources. When one spouse dies, household income typically drops; as a result the surviving spouse may be newly-eligible for various forms of assistance that can make a real difference in their financial well-being.

  • In Iowa, Lifelong Links, a resource provided by the Iowa Department on Aging and the Area Agencies on Aging, is an excellent first stop for those who want to learn about available options. You can search online or call 866-468-7887; if you call, you will be connected with representatives in your part of the state.
  • BenefitsCheckUp.org is a nationwide search tool that can also help you screen for resources that could be of help to you; it is provided by the National Council on Aging.

Source: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which also provides more data about recently widowed adults.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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