Addressing the Financial Devastation of Widowhood

By: Matt Greenwald

It’s hard to imagine anything that has a more devastating impact on women than widowhood – especially for women who have dependent children or whose husbands were primarily responsible for the family’s financial decision making. The Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER) wants to help – and commissioned Greenwald & Associates to perform a study with two purposes: to assess the financial impact of widowhood, and to test interest in a potential solution – an interactive website that would help widows deal with key financial, legal and other issues.

Greenwald & Associates surveyed 264 widows aged 70 and under with financial assets ranging from $50,000 to $1 million. Here’s what we found:

  • Half of all widows lose at least half of their incomes when their husband dies, even when the husband is retired and on Social Security.
  • Nearly three in 10 widows had no emergency fund when their husband died. The number was 45 percent for women with assets under $100,000.
  • Only 30 percent of widows had been primarily responsible for making decisions about their family’s financial planning and investments. So 70 percent were left without an important advisor.
  • Nearly one in four widows had difficulty filing income taxes. That figure rose to 61 percent among widows whose husbands had been primarily responsible for the family’s financial planning.
  • More than four in 10 widows had substantial difficulty determining what their children were entitled to from Social Security and initiating those payments. Another 37 percent had substantial difficulty determining what Social Security benefits they were entitled to themselves and collecting those benefits.
  • More than a third had substantial difficulty in determining what they were entitled to from their husbands’ pension plans and initiating those payments. And 30 percent had substantial difficulty determining what they were entitled to from their husbands’ IRAs and initiating payments.

The survey tested the appeal of an interactive website for widows that would contain how-to guides and resource contact information on such topics as legal matters, financial matters, insurance claims, medical matters, credit matters, housing issues and health issues. Results were overwhelmingly positive:

  • Nearly half (48 percent) of widows surveyed found the idea of the website extremely appealing or very appealing. Another 41 percent found it somewhat appealing.
  • Nearly half (46 percent) believed the website would have been extremely or very helpful when they were widowed. Another 42 percent said it would have been somewhat helpful.
  • More than half (53 percent) said they would have been extremely or very likely to turn to such a website for help when they were widowed. Another 32 percent said they would have been somewhat likely to use such a website.

WISER is currently seeking funding to build this interactive site.

For more on the WISER Widows study, read the Forbes article. To see a video of researcher Matt Greenwald discussing the survey’s findings, click here.

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