Financial Help for Widows

Trying to make ends meet is tough enough when a spouse dies, but not surprisingly, it’s even tougher when you are a woman.

There were 4.5 million Americans over the age of 65 living in poverty in 2016 and two-thirds of them were women. American widows see a 37% decline in household income when their spouse dies, while men see only a 22% drop.

Losing a partner can be Expenses for both sides – rent, food, medicine, transportation, etc. – remain the same, women just have a lot less money to deal with them, usually because they seldom remarry.

The U.S. Census Bureau says that in 2016, there were 9.7 million widows over the age of 65 and only 2.4 million widowers. That means that four times as many women as men are trying to make ends meet with only one income.

“When you’re used to having two Social Security checks come in every month and one of them goes away, life can suddenly get very expensive,” said Larry Kotlikoff, author of the New York Times best-selling book “Get What’s Yours – the Secrets of Maxing Out Your Social Security Benefits.”

“The surviving spouse has to deal with electricity, food, cars, maintenance and all the other day-to-day living expenses that don’t change, but they’ve only got one income to throw at it. That’s difficult for anyone.”

The Social Security Administration says that women, who reach the age of 65, are expected to live 86.3 years, but only 42.6% of them will be married. By comparison, 70.4% of men 65 and older are married. By the time women reach 75, only 33% of women are living with a spouse, while 67% of men still live with their spouse.

That means a majority of men are living in households receiving two Social Security checks a month. The majority of women are living in households receiving one.

It is a problem that is widely known and occasionally discussed among politicians, but little has been done to address the matter, even as 10,000 Baby Boomers roll into retirement age every single day.

Finding Financial Help for Widows

There are several government agencies, nonprofit organizations, churches, civic and community groups that offer widows financial assistance, but very few provide it on a continuing basis.

Social Security is the prime continuing resource available for widows. It allows you to claim either your spouse or your own benefits, whichever is greater, but there are a lot of hoops to jump through to maximize your benefits.

The Veterans Administration has a “Survivors Pension” benefit available to low-income, widows who don’t re-marry. The benefit is based on your yearly family income and the number of dependent children. In 2017, a widow without a dependent child, must have an income under $8,656 to get help.

The next-best source of continuing financial help for widows would be the spouse’s former employer. It may take a visit to that company’s Human Resources Department to find out how much he has in 401(k) or other retirement accounts and if there was a life insurance or healthcare benefit left for you.

Financial Help for Widows from Family

When widows experience financial problems, the most obvious place to turn is family, which can be a blessing, or curse, depending on how it is handled.

A study by Pew Research Center found that 75% of adults say they have a responsibility to offer financial assistance to elderly parents and many have the resources to do so. The study showed 43% of people making over $100,000 had a living parent over 65. The numbers dropped dramatically as income fell. Only 25% of people making $30,000-$100,000 had parents over 65 and 17% of those making less than $30,000 were in the same situation.

The quickest help from family is a gift of cash. The law allows widows to receive $14,000 from a single child with no tax implications either way. If the child is married, the limit goes up to $28,000. Another way to handle this might be to ask a child for a loan at 0% interest, or a very low, affordable rate.

That could be a quick ticket out of trouble like credit card debt, or past-due housing payments. However, if you are borrowing money from family as a loan, be sure to get the expected terms of repayment in writing. That will help avoid the financial drama that tears apart some families and could cause all sorts of family headaches when you die and your will goes to probate.

Online Financial Assistance for Widows

A visit to benefits.gov might be the best resource for finding government agencies outside of the Social Security and Veterans Administration that offer benefits for widows. You must fill out a questionnaire to see which agencies you qualify for assistance from, but the site is very extensive and useful.

The benefits.gov list includes resources like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamp program); Medicaid for health coverage assistance; LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) for help with paying your electric bill; Rural Rental Assistance for help with housing supplements to reduce rent; and Reemployment Assistance Insurance Program that provides unemployment benefits for eligible widows.

Another government website that just opened – aging.gov – offers information on a large assortment of topics, dominated by financial assistance.

Most of the nonprofit organizations, churches and community groups also can be found online. They usually offer help on a one-time basis for things like food, housing, clothing, furniture and other basic needs.

There are some national organizations devoted to widows –The Modern Widows Club, The Liz Logelin Foundation, Widow’s Hope, Acts of Simple Kindness (ASK), – but much of the help is found at local churches and charities.

For example, many Catholic churches have a ministry called the St. Vincent de Paul Society that deals specifically with people in a financial crisis. Like most church organizations, their assistance is on a one-time-only basis for rent, utilities, food, etc, but if you need immediate help, churches and local charities are probably your best bet.

What Happens to Your Home When Your Spouse Dies?

If a widow owned a home with her spouse, paying off the mortgage is her responsibility after his death. For women who did little more than sign the original loan agreement, this can be a shocking experience.

The good news is that if you co-signed the loan with your spouse, federal law prohibits the lender from demanding the entire amount due at his death. Mortgage terms remain the same, as long as you make the monthly payments. The only difference is that you own the entire house and its value, instead of owning just half.

If you are having trouble keeping up with payments, check with your lender to see if your husband had an insurance policy on the mortgage that would pay off the remaining balance.

You might get financial help by way of refinancing the loan. A lower interest rate and monthly payment would provide immediate relief, but might also mean a longer payoff period for the loan. Before finding out what happens if you pay your mortgage late, call your lender to find out if they have a hardship program you can enroll in.

One other possibility: A reverse mortgage. You would have to be 62 or older and owe less than half the home’s value to take advantage of this through a lender. You also could try a reverse mortgage through one of your children or family members, but that could cause real strife in the family if things went sour.

The final option is to simply sell the home and use the money to find a more affordable living situation.

What Happens to Credit Card Debt When Your Spouse Dies?

Dealing with credit card debt after death for which there is no simple answer, but the easiest way to look at it is this: If your name was on the credit card account as a co-signer, you owe whatever debt has accrued there, whether you actively used the card or not.

If you were a co-signer (sometimes called a joint account holder) and do not pay on the card, that information will go on your credit report and likely have a sizeable negative impact on your credit score for seven years. Your account could be sold to a collection agency, which would pursue it until the statute of limitations (4-5 years in most states) runs out.

If you can’t pay the debt, you would be better off seeking help from a nonprofit credit counseling agency for advice on a debt management plan, a debt consolidation loan or debt settlement to take care of the problem before it reached a collection agency.

On the other hand, if your name is on the account simply as an authorized user, you are not responsible for the debts, but the estate is. If money is available when the estate is settled, it will go toward paying the balance of the credit card debt.

Beyond that? Well, it all depends on the circumstances, including whether you are a resident of the 10 states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin) that operate under “community property” laws.

In some (not all!) of the community property law states, the surviving spouse is responsible for all the deceased spouse’s debts, even if they had separate accounts. If you live in one of those 10 states, it’s best to consult a lawyer to find out for certain if you’re responsible for the debt.

Does Social Security Save Widows?

Social Security is the primary financial resource available for most widows, but unraveling all the knots tied up in claiming your spouse’s benefits is not an easy task.

That’s why Kotlikoff, an economist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University, became a best-selling author and why he thinks widows should be looking beyond Social Security to ease financial woes.

“Social Security benefits definitely help, but not nearly as much as people would want,” Kotlikoff told InCharge.org. “There are all sort of gaps in the system and ways you have to deal with them to get what you deserve.

“But inevitably, the picture is not all that good for widows. Women receive a disproportionately small share of the benefits. That’s why so many of them end up impoverished as they get older.”

Kotlikoff didn’t want to try and unwind all the “what if” possibilities for widows and social security, beyond suggesting they get an early start in understanding the system because the older you get, the more it becomes a burden than a benefit.

The Health and Human Services Profile of Older Americans done in 2015 said that 32% of the population over 65 reported incomes of less than $15,000 and Kotlikoff said that the number of widows with income close to the poverty level increases as they age.

“I would suggest that widows make a lifetime budget plan as early as possible,” Kotlikoff said. “Figure out how much you’re going to need to maintain the lifestyle you want to lead and then look at your expected benefits from social security, life insurance, retirement plans, pensions, – anywhere you expect to get money – and see if that’s going to support it.

“People usually underestimate how much they will need and you can get hurt very badly is you screw this up.”

Tips for Widows Dealing with Social Security

Everyone knows that the Social Security Administration is supposed to be the financial pillow people can fall on when they reach retirement age, but few people realize what a labyrinth of twists and turns the system is.

Here are a few things you should know before trying to claim your benefits.

  • Surprisingly, only 3.7 million of the estimated 10 million widows in the United States received Social Security benefits in 2016.
  • It is best to apply for benefits by visiting a Social Security office in person. Call ahead for an appointment. You will save hours of frustration.
  • To receive full social security benefits, you must be 66 years and two months old. You can start receiving reduced benefits as a widow at age 60. Full retirement benefits are at age 66 years and two months and if you can wait, maximum benefits come at age 70.
  • Bring original copies of your spouse’s death certificate, birth certificate, marriage certificate and proof of U.S. citizenship. You must have originals – not photocopies! – to make claims at the Social Security office. A photocopy of a W-2 form or self-employment tax returns are also necessary.
  • Familiarize yourself with the various options available to widows. You can take either your husband’s social security benefits or your own, but you can’t take both. In some cases, it may be beneficial to take your own, until your spouse’s benefits have maxed out, which would happen when he would have reached 70.
  • If your husband received Social Security payments before he died and checks continue to come to you, DO NOT cash them. The government eventually will reclaim all the money they paid after his death. If you cashed the checks, you are liable for that amount and must pay it back.

Widows Financial Problems Get Worse with Age

Though women are catching up rapidly, the majority of those eligible for Social Security and retirement benefits are underfunded when they reach retirement age. The combination of a lifetime of working for less because of the gender wage gap and taking time away from work to raise children, usually means lower Social Security benefits and 401(k) or company pension plan for retirement savings.

According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the median income for women over the age of 65 was $17,375, or about 80% less than the median income for men ($31,169) of the same age.

It’s hard to balance a budget with 80% less income.

“And it only gets worse as women get older,” said Cindy Hounsell, President of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER). “By the time they get to their 80s, a lot of women are near poverty because they never had the discussion with their husband about “what’s going to happen to me if you’re gone?”

Hounsell founded WISER to try and get women to do some planning for a future that is almost a statistical certainty: Women outlive men, and for the most part, end up living alone.

“Odds are that if you’re a woman, you’re going to be going it alone at some point late in life,” Hounsell said. “Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t know where the money is, where it’s supposed to be coming from and how to manage money on their own so when their spouse dies, they’re stuck. They don’t know what to do.”

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Why Boomer Widows are Financially at Risk

by Chris Taylor

New York (Reuters) In 2000, Carole Brody Fleet was part of a group of one million people just like her. By 2006, she was one of two million. Over the next couple of decades, she’ll become one of 20 milion.

But it’s a group she never wanted to be part of.

She’s a baby boomer widow, having lost her beloved husband Mike to Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2000. It was an emotionally tumultous time, when she felt utterly lost and “completely overwhelmed”. But what hit her maybe most of all: The financial realities of facing life without her longtime partner.

“There were medical bills, there was a lack of financial preparedness, and there was belief that bad things only happen to other people” says Fleet, 51, author of “Widows Wear Stilettos.” “Combine all of that, and we were absolutely left in financial ruin.”

It’s a demographic phenomenon that financial planners are dealing with more and more. With life-expectancy rates being markedly different between the sexes – on average, women live five years longer than men – it means that waves of women among the 78-million-member boomer generation are finding themselves having to grapple with financial matters alone.

While not always the case – roughly 30 percent of the time, husbands will outlive their wives – the likelihood is that an overwhelming 70 percent of boomer women are expected to survive their husbands, and bear the resulting financial burdens.

“We’re talking about a significant increse in boomer widows over the next 10 to 15 years,” says Brian Korb, a wealth manager at USAA, who did his doctoral dissertation on financial planning for boomer widows. “There are a couple of key issues: They won’t have the assets they’ll need to live, and many won’t have any experience managing those assets.”

Women have been taking major strides in making financial calls, boosting involvement in household decision-making by a third in the last decade, according to a study by Prudential Financial. But even so, 40 percent of married women still leave retirement planning up to their spouse, according to an ING Direct USA survey- and almost 80 percent say they lack the financial savvy to make the right planning decisions.

Future prospects for boomer widows aren’t helped by American’s woeful underfunding of their retirement account. According to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, 56 percent of workers report having less than $25,000 in savings and investments. Subtract one spouse’s income in the event of a death, while still coping with bills like mortgage payments, and the financial equation can be extremely frightening for the surviving partner.

Of course, you don’t have to wait for such a crisis to take action. The steps you take now could spare you financial panic down the road.

“Start your estate planning yesterday. If a spouse’s illness is drawn out, there might be ample time to get your family’s financial affairs in order. But if the departure is sudden – a car accident or a heart attack, say – then you just don’t have that time. Make sure all accounts are jointly held, for instance, so assets aren’t walled off and subject to a lengthy probate process. “I know of one couple where the husband had a heart attack while packing for an anniversary cruise,” says Korb. “The fact is you just don’t know how long you have left, so get prepared now.”

“Avoid the “Shoebox Widow” syndrome. In couples where one partner handles all the financial affairs, the spouse left behind is frequently in the dark about their assets. “Often widows will be left with nothing but a shoebox or a grocery bag full of random statements,” says Michael Mussio, a portfolio manager with FBB Capital Partners in Bethesda, Maryland. “Then they have to make sense of it all, which leads to even more anxiety.” To prevent that outcome, get together with your spouse now to write down a full record of all accounts, passwords and contacts that will become vital later on.

“Hold off on Social Security. Even though you can start taking Social Security at age 62, it means a reduced benefit for the rest of your life. If a husband was the primary earner over the course of his career, that reduced benefit passes to his widow. If the primary earner can afford to hold off on taking Social Security until as late as age 70, on the other hand, you qualify for a significant premium that could help the survivng partner for years to come.

“Don’t make hasty financial moves. With a hole in the heart after a spouse’s passing, it’s not the ideal time to be making critical financial decisions. Brian Korb’s study of boomer widows found that many describe the experience as being in a permanent “fog”, or akin to having had a stroke. As a result, “Don’t make any major decisions inside of the first six months,” advises Mussio. “As long as you have some savings or income to tide you over, don’t move assets around at a breakneck speed. You’re still suffering, and you’re still grieving.”

“Enlist the help of a professional. Nothing can replace a lost partner, of course. But when it comes to financial decisions, boomer widows can draw on the expertise of a professional to help navigate some tricky waters – ideally someone you already trust and have bonded with. In fact, among the boomer widows USAA’s Brian Korb surveyed, their one-regret was not going to a financial planner sooner.

“Boomer widows are financially unprepared in so many ways that it’s frightening,” says Carole Brody Fleet, author of “Happy Even After.” “People running around without wills, without life insurance. They could lose everything, and it’s because nobody is talking about these things. We think that if we just don’t talk about it, it won’t happen to us.”