Taking Control Of Your Finances After Losing A Spouse: A Guide for Women

This article was originally published in January 2017, by Morgan Stanley.

Financial planning after a divorce or death can be trying, but with the right approach and the right advice you can turn a difficult situation into empowerment.

Divorce or the death of a spouse can turn the best laid financial plans upside down. An income stream dries up; assets may be divided; in short, where life had a feeling of certainty, you may now be standing on shifting ground.

Whatever the circumstances, if you haven’t been closely involved in investing or other big-picture financial decisions, taking the lead on money matters can seem daunting.

To be sure, gender roles are evolving, and women are increasingly active in financial planning. But even so, women who outlive their husbands, or who experience a so-called silver divorce—a split that occurs later in life, sometimes after decades of marriage—can be caught off guard by the magnitude of the decisions they must make alone, not least those concerning their home.

“Death or divorce can add a whole new level of complexity to financial planning,” says Joyce M. Burich-Andrews, a financial advisor with Morgan Stanley Wealth Management in Boca Raton, Fla. “And at a time marked by extreme emotion and uncertainty.”

With the right approach and the right advice, the process need not be onerous. It fact, it may be empowering.

You don’t want to do anything in haste after a transition, but you do want to take steps to take control of your finances. “The sooner you start down that path, the better your odds of success,” says Mary Gibbons Gardiner, a financial advisor with Morgan Stanley Wealth Management in Purchase, NY.

With the right approach and the right advice, the process need not be onerous. On the contrary, it can be empowering. Here’s how to manage the transition:

Find a Confidante

To help you get started, ask a couple of money-savvy friends or family members to act as a sounding board. “They can go with you when you initially meet advisors and help you ask good questions,” says Gardiner. While it’s helpful if your confidantes understand the basics of investing or estate planning, they needn’t be experts. Their role is to help you take the steps you need to make good choices, not make them for you.

Put Your Team in Place

Depending on the complexities of your situation and your financial savvy, you may want to seek out several experts, including an attorney, tax professional and Financial Advisor. “Because you don’t know what you don’t know, getting the right advice is critical in the early stages of a transition,” says Gardiner, who notes that a common mistake is to delay financial planning until after a divorce is final or the estate is settled. “You want to understand what you’re up against financially before you agree to anything.”

If you don’t have a Financial Advisor, finding the right one is not unlike finding a new doctor. Get two or three recommendations from other professionals (e.g. your attorney) and people who have been in similar circumstances. Then meet with them to see which advisor has the right mix of experience, personality and approach.

No matter which route you take, be leery of anyone who tries to sell you insurance or investment products out of the gate. “If the person immediately goes into, ‘How much money do you have and what is your risk tolerance,’ get another opinion,” says Burich-Andrews. “I always say that investing should be the last step.”

Get—and Stay—Organized

An advisor can walk you through all the steps you need to take to get organized, but you can facilitate the process by tracking down key documents, including: recent brokerage and bank statements; life and health insurance policies; recent tax returns; loan documents; and Social Security statements.

As you go about gathering these documents, you’ll want to update your information—including beneficiaries—and start taking steps to protect your assets and your heirs. Among other things, you will want to update your will and any trust agreements, and look at life insurance and long-term care needs and policies.

Finally, create an inventory of your accounts and financial interests—everything from bank accounts to recurring bills—and store the information in a safe place, or with your attorney or advisor. Let your loved ones know that such a document exists and where they can find it.

Take Stock of What You Have, and Need

At the heart of financial planning is understanding your goals and creating a road map to achieve them. A key part of the process is reconciling your income and savings with your spending. For this reason, your advisor will likely ask you to track your spending for several months, either with a spending journal or financial software. “This isn’t something you should guestimate,” says Burich-Andrews.

Be Patient but Proactive

You don’t want to delay key steps in the planning process, but you also don’t want to rush into decisions. “The first year after a death or divorce can be very rough,” says Gardiner. “We usually advise clients to not make any major changes, such as selling a house, right away.”

The same is true of coming up with a financial plan. “We’d rather take our time building a solid foundation than rush and create a plan that is unrealistic,” she adds. “You want to start the planning process as soon as you can, but you may not have all the answers right away, and that’s to be expected.”

NotTied does not provide tax or legal advice. You should always consult a tax advisor for matters involving taxation and tax planning and an attorney for legal matters.