How to Financially Cope With Being Suddenly Single

Widowhood poses special challenges in retirement.

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To reach a happy medium, Hinnenkamp encourages single women to consider how inflation can erode their future purchasing power and counsels men, especially seniors with a shorter time horizon, to play it safer. He adds that generally, holding between 50 and 70 percent in equities and 30 and 50 percent in bonds makes sense for retirees.

Delay big moves. When financial planner Mark Colgan's wife died suddenly at age 28, he realized that he wasn't the only one who could use help during such a stressful time. Within hours of her death, he had to make decisions about her funeral arrangements and burial, and in the months that followed, he found it difficult to open mail with her name on it, including credit card bills. As a result of that experience, he started a company to help people in his situation called Plan Your Legacy and wrote The Survivor Assistance Handbook: A Guide for Financial Transition.

Colgan says he often sees people rush through decisions, such as selling their homes or shifting investment holdings, shortly after the death of their spouse. "Grief is so painful, they want to get it over with," he says. While certain bills and funeral expenses need to be taken care of relatively quickly, selling a house or changing ownership on bank accounts can wait, he says.

Protect yourself. Michael Goshorn, who started the website after his wife died in 1993, says that fraudsters sometimes prey on widows and widowers, whom they identify from newspaper obituaries. "You are especially vulnerable after you lose a spouse," says Goshorn, of Fort Collins, Colo.

The Better Business Bureau has received reports of fake insurance agents who tell widows and widowers that their deceased spouse's life insurance premium was delinquent and that they must pay thousands of dollars for the insurance funds to be released.

Keep a paper trail. Alexandra Armstrong, a financial planner in Washington and coauthor of On Your Own: A Widow's Passage to Emotional and Financial Well-Being, recommends keeping a file drawer for paperwork related to the estate of the deceased spouse as well as one dedicated to the surviving spouse's accounts. For some of her older clients who have trouble keeping track of all their paperwork, she recommends hiring a personal money manager, who gets paid by the hour to handle bills during a home visit. (A directory of people who provide such services can be found through the American Association of Daily Money Managers. Fees vary by region; in urban areas, they run about $65 per hour.)

McGrath says she has seen couples, especially older ones, use only the husband's name on bank accounts, bills, and loans, leaving the wife with no credit history. Putting both names on accounts while both husband and wife are alive can easily solve that problem, she adds.

Williams, who is also author of A Journey Well Taken: Life After Loss, says, "It almost sounds cold to be thinking of this stuff, but it's so important because later on it really saves the surviving spouse a lot of time and stress."