The importance of putting off big decisions after you have been widowed

Fighting your own instincts, and possibly the advice of some professionals, to make a lot of decisions in the aftermath of losing a spouse may be your best financial decision of all.

There are lots of decisions to make in adjusting to single life after losing a spouse. And being widowed is devastating. That combination can lead to some bad outcomes if not handled thoughtfully. Some decisions need to be made now but most are better off deferred. There are a few factors at work:

Grief clouds the mind. Susan Bradley, former financial advisor, creator of the Sudden Money Institute, and a widow herself, says “one of the hardest parts for many widows is coping with money issues during the early stages of crushing grief — neither their heads or their hearts can make important decisions.”[1] Ron Lieber, writing in The New York Times, adds that there is an “overwhelming mix of emotions. There is grief and despair, fears both rational and irrational and often a desperate urge to take action — any action — that will allow them to move on. But with important financial decisions, speed can make a mess of things.”[2]

Insecurity lowers decision-making ability. Being under financial stress, real or perceived, compromises your ability to make good choices. One study revealed that people who were struggling to pay their bills temporarily lose the equivalent of 13 IQ points[3]. So, in addition to the possibility that you may not be familiar with all the issues around the decisions you need to make, your capabilities may be compromised in the short term complicating the situation further.

A vision of the future is not yet in place. One of the most frequent desires of new widows is to pay off their principal mortgage, feeling that securing the homestead will provide some stability that they seek. In reality, until the dust settles and you have a chance to think more clearly keeping the house may not be the best long-term decision. Many large financial decisions are better made after you have some time to reflect on what you want your life to look like in your new situation.

Your partner may have done the finances. In many couples, household responsibilities get divided between the partners and the man often handles the financial strategies. If this is the case, you may not be as familiar with some of the instruments and strategies that have been employed.

There are some bad players who prey on widows. Let’s face it, there are people out there who look to take advantage of others during times of vulnerability.  Taking that time, being in a better position to ask questions, think things through and not make big decisions in a hurry, will help protect you from unscrupulous people.

Here are a few ideas to help you make better decisions as a new widow:

Create what Susan Bradley of the Sudden Money Institute calls a “Decision Free Zone.” This is where you work with your advisor to make only the most urgent decisions and to further rest until you have had an opportunity to work through your loss.

Enlist help. Your decision-making ability may be compromised as you grieve, so getting professional guidance can be crucial. Find (or leverage an existing) advisors who appreciate what you’re going through and are willing to give you the space to defer decisions that don’t need to be made now. They can help identify and coach you on those decisions and leave the rest for later.  It may even make sense to bring a trusted friend or family member with you to meetings.  Very often people feel overwhelmed dealing with grief and life’s practicalities.  That second person can help listen, and ask questions you may not have thought about.  Remember, you don’t have to do this alone.

Secure enough money to pay the bills. Identify what bills are coming due in the next few months and make sure that you have the assets to cover them. That may help calm the anxiety that seeks security in a tumult to us time.

Give yourself some space. Don’t feel compelled to make all the decisions now even if it is to “get on with your life.” Be accepting of your feelings and the situation you’re in. Have your advisors confirm that the immediate needs are taken care of. Pick a date when you will return to the conversation. And then do your best to get it out of your mind so that you can do the important work of grieving and adjusting. .

[1] https://www.suddenmoney.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.details&ArticleId=438&returnTo=smi-blog

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/03/your-money/4-money-pitfalls-every-widow-should-avoid.html

[3] https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/financial-stress-can-induce-drop-in-iq-1.1326370

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