Although the longevity gap is closing thanks to increased attention to preventative medicine and general wellness, on average women tend to live five to ten years longer than men. In fact, 71% of people over the age of 85 are women, and most of them are widowed. The 1985 census indicated that the average age of widowhood in America was age 55, which suggests many women are widowed at far younger ages than one might expect. Morbid as it may seem, all wives (seniors or otherwise) need to give some thought to how they will cope in the event of the loss of their husband. As with everything else in life, lack of preparedness can have highly unpleasant consequences, and death of a spouse is traumatic enough.
Logistically, a widow's first task is to address the death itself and disposition of remains. If a death occurs at home, the county coroner should be called; if emergency personnel is called through 911 they will attempt resuscitation, which may or may not be what is wanted in the situation. The selected funeral home or mortuary will pick up the body absent other instructions from the coroner or a hospital or program to which organs or the body are being donated. Hospice attendants can help greatly at the time of a loved one's death.
Ordering death certificates through the funeral director is the first step toward settling the affairs of the deceased. 5-10 copies of the certificate should be ordered in most cases; each financial institution with whom the deceased maintained a relationship will require its own copy, so more may be required depending on the state of the husband's affairs. The widow should immediately contact Social Security, Veterans Affairs, any insurers, and their spouse's employer to inform them of the death and gather necessary information for collection of benefits. Determining what assets the deceased spouse owned often requires a comb through records, mail, and safe deposit boxes to gain a complete picture.
If the deceased spouse left a will as well as assets in his name, the will must be filed for probate as quickly as possible in order to initiate transfer of those assets to the identified beneficiary. If the spouse did not leave a will, state law provides for property to transfer by operation of law to a statutorily-determined hierarchy of beneficiaries, with the widow having first priority unless the spouse left surviving children from outside the marriage. An attorney should be engaged to help administer this process as expeditiously and appropriately as possible, although settlement of a probate estate can be expected to take six to twelve months even in the most ordinary of cases. An accountant is also an invaluable advisor while the estate is being settled, to ensure proper tax returns are filed on a timely basis.
Financially, women need to be prepared for an adjustment to their accustomed lifestyle. Economists estimate that the cost of living for a surviving spouse is reduced to only 80% of that the couple jointly. If both parties were receiving social security, the widow will only receive the higher of the two benefits, which on average reduces social security income to 65% of what the couple was receiving jointly. Women should also ensure that they will receive the death benefit of any pension currently paying to their husband; one third of men have not left their pension to their wives (although recent changes in law now require wives to consent to such an arrangement). Health insurance coverage for the widow may also change, requiring the surviving spouse to seek her own insurance coverage, or make Medicare elections if she is over 65.
Despite all the tasks and decisions required at the loss of a husband, the most important thing a widow can do is take the time to become educated and carefully evaluate her options. A life-altering event requires time to adjust and gain appropriate perspective on the situation; small steps and steady decision-making will pay off in the long run. Professional legal, tax, and financial advisors can be invaluable assistance, provided the right advisor for the widow is chosen in the first place. The right professional will help a widow manage at her pace and provide appropriate support and education as she needs it.