Before You Become Widowed – Will You Struggle Financially?

Do you think about what will happen if your spouse passes away and you become widowed? Do you think about what will happen to your spouse if you pass away? Ask each other the question, what would I struggle with financially if I were to become widowed?

The financial impact of becoming widowed can be as overwhelming as the emotional impact. Frequently, there is a decline in standard of living for the surviving spouse. Household income can decline because of changes in Social Security benefits and the potential loss of the deceased spouse’s retirement income.

On the other side of that equation is recognizing that the cost of living as an individual won’t decline nearly as much; things like mortgage payments and monthly living expenses will remain the same.

Asking each other the big question, identifies where you might need help. It is also helpful for each partner to make an “After I’m gone” file. This file should include important financial documents, like retirement account plans and banking information, as well as any insurance documents, wills, powers of attorney, etc. And be sure passwords to those accounts are included. Collecting documents and trying to understand what you’re looking at while mourning is extremely challenging. Preparing the information and having hard conversations before  needing the information will help.

If your partner handles the finances, ask them to walk you through everything. You will want to:

  1. Make sure you have a complete understanding of your partner’s workplace retirement/pension plan. If you or your spouse do not have a retirement account large enough to live on, do not waive the survivor’s annuity. Once the one holding the pension dies, the pension benefit payments will stop.
  2. Know who to contact if you are entitled to other employer plans like life insurance and death benefits. Since different rules apply to state, local and federal government pension plan payouts be sure to contact their HR department and find out as much information about their plan as you can. You want to know whether rules require lump sum payouts or whether they can be rolled over to an IRA.
  3. Know your Social Security benefit options. Social Security will not pay you two benefits. If you are over age 60 and have been married at least 9 months, you can receive between 71 and 100 percent of your spouse’s Social Security benefit as a widow/er. However, if you are collecting a benefit based on your own earnings, you may receive no additional benefit. Social Security will pay the highest one for which you are eligible. (Tip: consider delaying when you and/or your spouse file for benefits. This will result in a larger survivor’s benefit).


There are two great resources for older adults that are especially helpful for widows and widowers who are having difficulty with their finances or other challenging aspects of widowhood:

  • Resources

  • The Eldercare Locator is a nationwide service from the Department of Health and Human Services that connects older adults with a variety of local, trusted services in their community. Call 1-800-677-1116 or visit gov.
  • Benefits Check Up is a free service of the National Council on Aging that allows you to quickly find benefit programs that could help pay for medications, health care, food, utilities and more. Visit