Jeremy Raffer, an industry veteran with more than 15 years of experience as an advisor, is director and partner, and wealth manager with Raffer Wealth Management at Steward Partners in Paramus, NJ.

Russ Alan Prince: You recently authored a book, Financial Planning for Widows, identifying some of the top financial challenges that new widows face. How can new widows navigate one of the immediate challenges of paying their bills?

Jeremy Raffer: The book was the result of my own experiences helping my mother after my father passed unexpectedly. As I helped my mom organize her finances, I realized how hard it would have been for her had I not been there and that not everyone has a son who’s a financial advisor.

For many widows, I’ve seen that taking over the finances and bill paying is one of the most stressful things they have to deal with. In addition to processing their grief, there’s no list of usernames and passwords, and their spouse’s record-keeping may be difficult to decipher.

I have found the most effective way to go about this is to get a large legal pad, write monthly bills at the top, and begin to review the credit card and checking account history. Go back a couple of months and write down all the recurring charges such as gas and electricity, phone bills, Internet, and so on. Make a comprehensive list, and if possible, include the approximate amount of each line item. This exercise will reveal that some expenses occur quarterly or even annually, like sewer and water bills, homeowner’s insurance, and AAA. For these non-monthly ongoing expenses, create a second column on the tally sheet.

Once that list is complete, I generally recommend getting a fresh sheet of paper and working through the list by going to the appropriate website and creating online usernames and passwords for each account. The decision to pay by check or with an automatic deduction is a personal one, but I have found that autopay is the cleanest way to do things. All the bills should be paid from that single credit card except for the utilities, mortgage and taxes, which typically don’t allow a credit card transaction and will need to be paid from a checking account.

As you work through this list, some charges will remain the same, some will need to be adjusted, like cell phone bills and car insurance, and some can be eliminated. Once a month, the widow should review their credit card charges before paying off their balance. Along the way, they’ll get a really good feel for their monthly expenses and be able to determine their cash flow needs.

Prince: What Social Security benefits are available for widows, and what is the process for claiming them?

Raffer: When it comes to individual Social Security benefits, typically, a widow is entitled to collect either their spouse's benefit or their own, whichever amount is greater.

Let’s say the deceased husband was receiving $3,000 a month, and his wife was receiving $1,500. In this scenario, the wife would be entitled to her husband’s benefit because it is greater than hers. Total household income would decline from $4,500 each month in Social Security benefits to just the husband’s $3,000 a month. This is a hypothetical but common scenario.

To get things started, the survivor should call Social Security to report the death.

Social Security will then schedule a phone appointment with a representative for some time in the not-too-distant future, usually a month out. On that phone appointment, they will explain the procedures and what benefit the widow can expect and ask for a copy of the death certificate and likely marriage certificate, as well as send a form in the mail to complete. They’ll explain that the deceased’s benefit will pause, and the widow’s will continue until things can be updated, at this point, the appropriate adjustments will be made to the living recipient’s benefit and prorating whatever was missed during the processing. 

Prince: In the event of a spouse's passing, how can a widow determine if there is a life insurance policy, and what steps should they take if one exists?

Raffer: The hardest part of settling life insurance is often finding it in the first place. If the actual policy can’t be found, since life insurance premiums are paid regularly, this payment probably turned up in the bill search. The next step is to call them to report the death of the policyholder. The insurance company will need the insured’s name, Social Security number, date of birth and any other identifying information associated with the account record. Once the policy is found, they can send the beneficiary the life insurance claim form either electronically or by mail.

Life insurance companies typically process these payments pretty quickly, and the beneficiary can expect to receive a check in the mail within 30 days on average. That check will be tax free, as are all life insurance payments.

Prince: What options do widows have for selling their late spouse's old car?

Raffer: If the deceased had a car that is no longer needed, insurance on it should be canceled immediately. If the car is in the spouse’s name and a private sale is preferred, the surviving spouse will need to go to the DMV to transfer the title into their name. Selling the car back to the dealer is also an option. It will likely be for less than a private sale because the dealer will want to make a profit, but it is a lot easier than transferring the title and dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Russ Alan Prince is a strategist for family offices and the ultra-wealthy. He has co-authored 70 books in the field, including Making Smart Decisions: How Ultra-Wealthy Families Get Superior Wealth Planning Results