The Women’s Institute for Financial Education offers a bumper sticker on its Web site (www.wife.org) designed to encourage women to take control of their finances and their future. It reads: “A man is not a plan!” For anyone who has experienced the loss of a spouse through divorce or death, it’s no joke. Especially among older women, financial concerns are usually left to husbands. Beyond what’s in their checking accounts today, many women don’t know much about their finances.
“The ideal situation is to know where your investments are and where important documents are kept before a crisis strikes,” says Candace Bahr, the nonprofit institute’s co-founder.
When a crisis does strike—a marriage dissolves or a husband suddenly dies—what you do first depends on the situation. The steps to be taken in divorce are different from those taken after the loss of a spouse. Ginita Wall, co-founder of WIFE, a certified public accountant and certified financial planner specializing in divorce, is the author of “150 Ways to Divorce Without Going Broke” (available at wife.org), and recommends women take the following actions before a divorce:
• Remove sentimental and valuable items to a safe place outside your home. Videotape and inventory the contents of your household.
• Cancel all joint credit cards, including gasoline cards and those from department stores.
• Before separating, use joint funds for house and auto repairs, to buy clothes for yourself and your children, and to take care of other family expenses.
• Decide which assets you would like to keep if you divorce and what you are willing to give up. In most states, money you brought into the marriage, plus gifts and inheritances, are yours if you can trace them to assets you now own. Find all the documents you will need to prove that property is yours.
Bahr advises widowed clients to organize household paperwork and immediately begin paying the bills their husbands used to pay. After that, women should gather together financial documents, wills and trust agreements, and also obtain six copies of the death certificate. The next step is to make phone calls to the insurance companies and the Social Security Administration to determine your survivor benefits. If your husband had a pension plan or a 401(k) plan through his employer, you’ll need to contact the human resources department at his company and find out the details.
“I tell clients to make a chart and put on it all the people they have called, what’s been said and what the next step should be. If you have a trusted friend or child you can enlist to help you, give them a copy of the chart so they can remind you about follow-up action you must take,” she says.
When you’ve got all your information, it’s time to seek help from your financial advisor. If you don’t have an advisor, ask your accountant or lawyer to recommend someone. But don’t just ask a friend, she says. “Most people don’t really know the quality of the advice they are getting. A friend doesn’t have the ability to judge an advisor objectively,” she says.
Bahr also suggests that widows wait at least six months before making any big decisions about managing their assets. Optimally, of course, couples should have contingency plans in place before a crisis strikes. Bahr suggests setting aside one day a year when you and your spouse talk about where important documents are kept, where money is invested and where the safe-deposit box key is located. “Ask each other, ‘If you die, whom do [I] trust? What things do you want me to keep? Would I have enough to live on?’ Do this once a year,” she says. “It takes fifteen minutes and it’s an uncomfortable conversation, but it could make a huge difference later on.”