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Preparing for the Widow Boom

by Buddy Thomas

Ready or not, here it comes—the widow boom! From the time the first of their generation was born in the mid-1940s, World War II baby boomers have created radical social and economic paradigm shifts, constantly reshaping the culture of our world. Their old age will be no different.

The next few decades may see the most radical boomer shift of all—the shift of a great deal of wealth from one generation to the next. One projection forecasts more than $41 trillion ($41,000,000,000,000) will be inherited by the children of baby boomers.

Before their children receive it, however, the financial power of the baby boomer generation will likely shift in another way—to the boomer wives. Because women traditionally survive their husbands 80 percent of the time (AARP report) and, on average, outlive them by about fourteen years (US Census Bureau), the obvious conclusion is that these “widow boomers” will control the lion’s share of this vast wealth for more than a decade before passing it on to the next generation.

I will worry about that tomorrow.

It is not too soon for boomer couples to formalize their late-life financial plan.

Communication is the key to avoiding financial confusion and distress later on. Talking with your spouse or loved one now, while you’re both in good health and planning for the future, will be an empowering experience that will give you peace of mind, security, and confidence.

Oddly enough, the preparation for what has been called “the single most stressful life event,” the loss of a spouse, can actually improve your existing relationship and create a better life for you today. Planning brings order and success into one’s life.

Waiting until after the loss of a spouse to organize finances makes an already difficult situation worse. Many widows have described their initial mental state as being on the edge of a great unknown, with no idea of how to make it to the other side of their grief.

The plan.

Start by organizing your plan. Think about the advisors and friends you depend on now. Ask yourself, “Is one of them the right person to guide me through this difficult time?” You may even want to go through the exercise, “Let’s pretend it just happened.” Who would you depend on today? Who would you turn to and ask, “What do I do now?” Who would hold your hand during those critical first two years?

The barriers to acting now are formidable. Even in the digital age, no one wants to talk about death. Also, most of us are busy with responsibilities and family commitments. Estate planning is important, but not urgent, and therefore easy to put off, especially when one is relatively young and healthy.

Whatever your barrier, take the next logical step. Talk to an existing advisor or a friend. Ask them what they would do to get started if they were you. Do not stop until you feel you are making real progress. Only you know what will satisfy your concerns. The resulting confidence and peace of mind, not to mention the family stability, will make any effort you put into it today worthwhile when the time comes.

Five common challenges that occur during the first two years after the death of a spouse include:

1. Processing grief: Grieving is the natural healing process that one must experience before regaining some sense of normalcy in the day-to-day activities of life. Research by Hospice estimates an average grieving time of 18 months. The variables involved in the process include intensity level and length of grieving, and are affected by length of the marriage, intimacy level of the relationship, and religion and culture of the survivor, to name a few. Healthy grieving results in the survivor getting used to their spouse being gone, not necessarily getting over the loss.

2. Settling the deceased’s estate: An average probate lasts 18 months, with more complicated estates sometimes taking many years and much conflict to settle. The more concrete estate planning done prior to death, the smoother, less stressful, and less costly the process will be.

3. Adjusting to the difference in cash flow: Having sufficient income to meet expenses is the main fear of many survivors, particularly those that are not familiar with the family finances. A list of short- and long-term income, plus life insurance or other assets, should be updated on an annual basis.

4. Investment and asset management: The survivor is now responsible for all aspects of the family investment portfolio. Regardless of the size of the estate, the survivor needs a plan and procedures to follow to address this important task. The best preparation is for both spouses to be familiar with the investments they hold, and to know what role they play in the financial security of the family finances.

5. Completing the family estate plan: Under current law relatively few transfer costs are due upon the death of a spouse. This leaves most of the responsibility of the final disposition of the joint estate to the survivor. Therefore, talk with your spouse now about final disposition of your mutual estate.

Having a basic contingency plan in place can go a long way toward bridging the gap to life as a single. Working with an estate planning professional can help design a plan that is right for you and your family, can help keep you on track to complete it, and keep it up to date. The greatest plan in the world is worthless without implementing the formal documentation that memorializes your intentions.

Buddy Thomas is Founder and Chief Planning Officer of Superior Planning. He can be reached at