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Widows need time to grieve before tackling finances

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2003

NEW YORK (AP) For Martha Vander May, the first few months after her husband's death were a cram course in personal finance.

''I understood the big picture of our finances,'' Vander May said. ''But my husband was in business, and he loved putting numbers in boxes. I would sit with him and say, 'yes, yes.' But until you're making those decisions yourself, you really don't fully understand.''

Vander May, 56, said what got her through that difficult time, when grief and fear can cloud a new widow's judgment, was finding a friend to act as a mentor as she made pressing money decisions and sought professional help for the long run.

As the leading edge of the baby boom generation approaches 60, more women must deal with the death of a spouse and the financial fallout. The same can be true of men who lose their wives, although they more often have been in control of a family's finances and tend to have less emotional attachment to things like the couple's home.

Nancy Dunnan, author of ''The Widow's Financial Survival Guide,'' said the death of a husband can create great stress.

''It's a very emotional time, and the widow may be depressed, may be feeling lost,'' Dunnan said. ''That makes her vulnerable to pressure from other people, especially family members, and to doing things she may regret later.''

So Dunnan's advice is that women put off making major decisions such as whether to keep the family home for at least six months, until the shock begins to wear off.

There are, of course, some financial issues that must be dealt with immediately.

''You've got to find records, pay the bills, stop your husband's credit cards, things like that,'' Dunnan said. ''But decisions like moving or staying put, going back to work, giving money away all that can wait until you're emotionally ready.''

Vander May, who lives in Fairfield, Conn., said one of the first decisions she made after her husband Mike died of a heart attack three years ago was to take a leave from her teaching job to focus on getting her life back in order.

She started ''doing the things I knew I could do,'' like selling her husband's car. ''There was a real comfort in keeping moving,'' she added.

Vander May sought help from financial and legal advisers for big decisions, such as how to diversify and invest her husband's pension and their retirement savings. And, after renovating and then selling the family's summer home, she found a new career in real estate.

Ginita Wall, a financial planner based in San Diego, said dealing with money can be especially difficult for a woman whose husband dies unexpectedly in an accident.

''When people get sudden wealth through negative means, they tend to either go out and start getting rid of it because it feels like ill-gotten gains, or they freeze and they're afraid to spend a dime,'' Wall said.

She said one of her clients took the insurance settlement she got after her husband's death in a plane crash and went on a shopping spree.

''She wanted to make it up to her children, to herself,'' Wall said. ''She blew through a lot of the money, and I don't think it eased her pain at all.''

Wall also warned that decisions made when emotions are high can backfire.

''It may sound good to sell the house and move out to live near your daughter in Ohio,'' she said. ''But you'll be leaving behind the support system of friends and others you built up through life, and your daughter with her own job and kids and husband may be way too busy to deal with you.''

Sandra Timmermann, director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute in Westport, Conn., said boomer women are more savvy about money than their mothers and grandmothers because so many have been in the work force and have been involved in the family's financial planning.

But there are still hurdles to be overcome, she added.

Very often, there's less money coming in, either because the husband's income stream has stopped or because the widow may get some but not all of the benefits the husband was receiving, Timmermann said.

The widow also has to deal with her children, or his children or their children, ''and you can't be sure how they're doing emotionally either.''

She emphasized that a widow needs to give herself time to heal.

Timmermann had cared for her husband, George, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, for a number of years before he died of cancer last year.

''For me, the first three months were about recovery,'' she said. ''I didn't do much of anything at that point except grieve. ... Then you realize you have to make your own life.''

She tackled financial issues at her own pace, ''and found some comfort in that.'' Still, she said, there are the ''reality checks'' that life throws up, such as having to pay higher property taxes and handling hospital bills still coming in.

Timmermann said she believed that the more planning a couple did ahead of the death of a spouse, the less traumatic it was financially for the survivor.

''One of the greatest gifts a man can give his wife and children is to have things organized for them,'' she said.

On the Net:

Wall's site: www.wife.org

www.metlife.com



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