Many couples don’t foresee the possible financial hit if one partner dies, including the tax crunch sometimes called the “widow’s tax.”

The “widow’s tax” originally referred to a reduction of government annuity payments to surviving spouses as part of a Veterans Affairs benefit. Though the phrase retains that meaning, it’s also come to refer to the confluence of potential tax and cash flow problems faced by women and men who recently lost their spouse.

“A large portion of married couples assign financial and tax jobs to only one spouse. The other spouse acquiesces to allowing the other to take care of accumulating documents [and] communicating with their accountants at tax time,” said Susan Carlisle, a CPA at CDW CPAs in Los Angeles. “Although [survivors] may still file as married/joint for the year of death, the challenging part is locating and gathering tax related documents if the surviving spouse never had that job.”

A surviving spouse with a dependent child can file a joint tax return for two years after the year of the spouse’s death—often hardly enough healing time to guarantee sound financial judgement, Kirsch noted.

Without a dependent child, the surviving spouse files as a single taxpayer beginning in the year following the death of their partner—an important tax consideration now that most taxpayers claim the standard deduction, which is greatly reduced for single filers older than 65. A surviving spouse filing single also typically finds themselves in a higher tax bracket as a single filer even with the same income; single filers also have a lower exclusion for capital gains on home sales.

Loss of a spouse’s income, earnings and savings potential can drop the survivor into a lower tax bracket if the income loss is big enough and the survivor doesn’t liquidate retirement accounts to support a lifestyle, said Joy D. Kirsch, CFO of Life Changing Events at Merit Financial Advisors in Southlake, Texas. Tax-saving options for such liquidation include rolling bequeathed retirement savings into a beneficiary IRA (as opposed to into the survivor’s own IRA) or taking penalty-free equal payments under the IRS 72(t) rules, which have many conditions.

“Accelerating [taxable] IRA withdrawals or Roth conversions while both spouses are living are two ways by which future taxes can be managed,” said Judy Rubin, partner, managing director and wealth manager with the Plaza Advisory Group at Steward Partners in St. Louis.

Most people also don’t plan well for Social Security benefits, said Mary Kay Foss, a CPA in Walnut Creek, Calif. “Taking benefits at 62 results in a permanent reduction in benefits of at least 25% for the wage owner and the spouse,” she said. “Unless someone has a short life expectancy, I recommend that they find a way to defer taking benefits until full retirement age.”

“A larger portion of the surviving spouse’s benefit is often subject to tax and the likelihood of the surviving spouse being charged a Medicare premium surcharge increases,” added John Petrie, managing director in total wealth management at Aspiriant in Milwaukee.

“A spouse who earned a monthly pension benefit would have made an election with respect to the portion of the payment that would continue to be paid to a surviving spouse. This election can be forgotten over time—and [potentially] create an unpleasant surprise for the survivor,” he said.

Jeff Winn, managing partner at International Assets Advisory in Orlando, Fla., said it’s usually a toss-up whether a couple he sees has factored in the loss of Social Security and, more importantly, loss of a pension. “Whenever I ask the questions that ultimately reveal any sort of loss or reduction in pension benefits,” he said, “you can feel the air leave the room.”

In some cases, it’s just a matter of reconsidering allocations of existing holdings, but other solutions might be an annuity or life insurance, Winn said.

“How much money someone has doesn’t predict how knowledgeable they are in the area of financial planning,” Rubin said. “I’ve had personal experience of the comfort a widow feels when they’ve broken the news of the death of their spouse, and I’ve reminded them that they have planned for this and they’ll be okay.”