Advice for Widows and Older Couples, Too

With 80 percent of wives likely to become widows, it makes sense to anticipate this new stage of life.

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Kathleen Rehl shares an unwanted identity with 11.5 million other American women. She's a widow. Unlike most of them, she's a financial planner. And now, more than three years after the death of her husband, Tom, she is also an author. "Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows," is a short, 80-page journey through the stages of grief that she felt. It's also an emotional as well as financial guide to the types of adjustments faced by a sadly growing number of women who have outlived their husbands.

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There are "to do" lists, including budget and investment aids. But do not expect to be inundated with instructions on how to roll over retirement accounts, transfer ownership of assets, change Social Security survivorship benefits, or other fact-laden advice. That is, I learned, what you would expect from me. It's a Mars versus Venus thing.

From a woman's perspective, which is, of course, what's important here, the guiding journey begins with feelings and emotional adjustments. Appropriately, Ms. Rehl's self-published book is beautifully illustrated with photographs and paintings by her brother, Stanley Moore, and her friend, Patrick Gaughan.

This is a gentle book, and it includes spaces for women to record their own thoughts about some of the difficult questions that surface after the death of a husband. "I had worked with widows for many years," she says, in explaining why she embarked on this project. "But after going through the chaotic experience of changing from wife to widow myself, I really 'got it.' I truly understood a widow's fragile emotional state and vulnerability. Like other widows, I was affected on so many levels -- emotional, psychological, social, financial, and more. I wanted to reach out to my 'widowed sisters,' to help them with their money issues in a way that no other book did."

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This is also a personally cathartic book, allowing Ms. Rehl to both pay tribute to her late husband and work through some of her own difficult issues since his death. She would hope it serves a similar role for her readers. "I didn't write this book to make money. My goal is to help other women rather than turn a profit," she says. "I almost scratched the project when I got the estimate of what it would cost to produce. But after discussions with my kids and friends, I decided to go ahead. Indeed, after my husband’s passing, my passion in life became my financial planning work and writing this book. If the guidebook catches on, we’re set to do a quick second printing. That edition should then result in some profit, part of which will be turned back to charitable organizations that benefit widows."

Of the nation's 11.5 million widows in 2008, more than 6.1 million are 75 and older. According to U.S. Census data, they comprise nearly 60 percent of all women in this age group. The numbers and percentages decline along with age, but there still were 1.5 million widows aged 55 to 64. One of the points that Mr. Rehl wanted to make about these numbers is that if trends hold, upwards of 80 percent of all Baby Boomer wives eventually will become widows.

So, one of my "Mr. Mars" messages to these women, as well as their husbands, is to take the time right now to do some of the planning that can help so much should either partner die. Organize your financial records. Make sure account numbers and, increasingly, online passwords, are safely stored where either spouse can access them. Understand your insurance coverages. Make sure wills are written and current. There is simply no way to over emphasize what an important and, ultimately, loving exercise this will represent to a surviving spouse.

While Ms. Rehl's book deals with emotional issues of widowhood, the financial stresses of losing a husband can be crushing. "The transition to widowhood increases poverty substantially," economic researchers Michael Hurd and David Wise concluded in their 2009 study about how the shift in Social Security survivorship benefits can affect poverty for widows.

Typically, a couple's Social Security benefit will drop by a third after a husband dies, they found. While some household expenses may drop as well, it often is very difficult for a woman to meet her financial obligations. Given that many lower-income women rely on Social Security for the bulk of their retirement income, "the drop in Social Security benefits at the death of the husband could have large effects on the economic status of the surviving widow," they concluded.

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