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.
  • 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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Planning for 2022 and Beyond

A new year provides many of us with the opportunity to try something different or reflect upon what we accomplished during the previous year, but it is also a great time to revisit our plans for the future. This could not be more relevant for my family as we have spent the past week mourning the loss of a loved one, while concurrently going through the painstaking process of executing a will, finding proper long-term care for a disabled surviving spouse, and carrying out final wishes for a family spread out all over the country.

And while this certainly is a difficult time, I cannot express how much easier it has been due to the basic estate planning conversations we coincidentally had earlier in 2021. Talking about the end of life’s journey is never fun; however, we were able to take care of a lot over the past few days because of these prior conversations, and with very little legal assistance.

I encourage you to take action soon to ensure that you have made appropriate preparations for your own death, as well as to encourage or assist those you care about to do the same. At the bare minimum, the following documents should be in place for each individual:

  • Advance Medical Directive – this allows a person to decide in advance who will make health care decisions for them if they become incapacitated and are unable to make their own decisions.
  • Durable Power of Attorney – in this document, the writer appoints an individual he/she trusts to make other legal decisions, primarily financial, on their behalf if they become incapacitated.
  • Last Will and Testament – this document provides key information and instructions regarding the distribution of assets, disposition of remains, and other final wishes on behalf of a deceased individual. It also can include instruction on who should be the guardian of any minor children of the individual who has died.
  • Beneficiary Designations – perhaps the simplest part of the estate planning process, setting up beneficiaries for life insurance policies, retirement accounts, etc. allows account owners to predetermine the distribution of those assets after their death, and also to avoid the probate process for those assets.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of things that need to be taken care of; however, having the above protections in place ahead of time will save your loved ones a lot of time, money, and stress when the unfortunate time of a loved one’s passing ultimately arrives. You can learn more by visiting the Iowa Legal Aid website, or by attending one of the many Iowa State University Extension and Outreach programs available for Aging and Caregiving. The Iowa Concern Hotline (800-447-1985) has an attorney on staff who can provide information on legal topics as well.

Ryan Stuart

Ryan is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Wellbeing and an Accredited Financial Counselor®. He focuses on educating and empowering all Iowans to independently make positive financial decisions throughout their life course.

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