Featured Columns

Written by Keith Schwanz
From his column It's Your Money


widowI stepped from the platform to the space at the head of the center aisle. Before leading the congregation in the pastoral prayer, I invited Edith to join me at the front. Just days before, we had gathered in this same sanctuary for the funeral of her husband Norman. Again on that Sunday morning, I called the congregation to be the church and to walk with Edith in the days ahead. I invited other women whose husbands had died to surround her as we prayed. Yes, I’m glad I belong to the people of God.

First Things First

While the emotional repercussions are heavy, the death of a spouse can unleash a torrent of worrisome financial matters as well. Some require immediate attention. Monthly bills, for example, must be paid on time. Other decisions can be postponed. Monies from a life insurance settlement may need to be “parked” in a money market account for a few months to allow time for the upheaval of personal loss to subside. Rushing to make an irrevocable decision at a time when emotions are raw and thinking muddled can result in financial disaster. It is better to wait for a “new normal” to emerge before making major financial decisions.

The death of a spouse will likely reduce monthly household income. Regular expenditures will possibly diminish, but maybe at a different pace than income. Following the death of a spouse, it’s important to recalculate monthly cash flow and spending as necessary. This process should be started in the days after the funeral.

Accounts and Living Arrangements

The first month after the death of a spouse is the time to give attention to financial account registration. If a couple had a joint bank account, the surviving spouse should change the registration to single ownership. Financial institutions will need a copy of the spouse’s death certificate to complete this type of request. Also, for life insurance policies and retirement accounts, the names of beneficiaries will need to be updated.

Deciding where to live should not be an urgent decision and is best made months afterward. It’s not unusual for relatives or friends, even at a funeral service, to put pressure on a surviving spouse to move, but such a major decision is best left for a later time. If a house must be sold, the process in itself will slow the speed of relocation.

Beware of Predators

Grieving spouses are vulnerable.

Unfortunately, predators often seek to take advantage of grieving survivors. Some may be known, like a family member or friend, who seeks to take advantage of the relationship. Others may appear via an unsolicited telephone call, visit, email or text. Grieving spouses are vulnerable. Those closest to them should pay special attention to watch out for their loved ones and be ready to intervene if necessary.

Prepare for the Inevitable

If my wife and I are typical for our generation, she will survive me. We have taken some steps to smooth the transition she will likely make someday. Since I have carried most of the financial management responsibilities through the years, I regularly talk with her about accounts, balances, and financial decisions. In those conversations I describe my observations about cash flow as I reconcile bank statements each month. She knows the balance of retirement accounts. This is an intentional move in anticipation of the day when she may need to assume the responsibility I now fulfill.

We have up-to-date wills that describe our desires for distribution of the estate. We named each other as the primary beneficiary, but we have named contingent beneficiaries as well. Most joint bank accounts pass immediately to the surviving owner when one owner dies, without needing to be specified in a will. Where possible, we have registered our financial accounts to settle outside of probate. A bank or investment account may be registered as “transfer on death” (TOD). A TOD account delineates in advance how the financial institution will disperse funds at death. This occurs prior to action dictated by a will, but a will is still necessary for all other property.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

Those who experience the loss of a spouse face days that will be different from those they are accustomed to. Some will be bright, others tinged with sadness. God’s grace, the presence of friends, and the passing of time will help. As individuals work through these experiences, it remains important to pay attention to the reality of day to day living and making sure that financial matters are taken care of. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from trusted friends, attorneys, or accountants.

I often think about the “Ediths” I encountered during my pastoral ministry. When I started serving as a pastor in the late 1970s, I never anticipated that walking with others through the valley dark with death would become so meaningful to me. Count on your pastor and those in your church fellowship to be there for you, for it is in those moments that we realize most fully that God is with us. Thanks be to God!

Keith Schwanz is a writer and editor. He has served the church as a pastor, church musician, and seminary educator.

Fidelity Investments, our partner in the Nazarene 403(b) Retirement Savings Plan, has a number of helpful financial resources for newly widowed spouses at Fidelity.com, including this one.

This article is offered as information only and is not intended as legal advice. We recommend those needing assistance in such matters consult a local attorney or other financial specialist. 


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