From Coupled to Suddenly Single: What Women Should Know About Their Finances

The loss of a spouse or life partner through death or divorce is one of life’s most stressful and emotional events. No matter how well you may have planned for a secure financial future together, all of that can shift in a matter of moments. And decisions that you once made together, or that you entrusted to your spouse or partner, are now yours alone. And, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average age of widowhood is 59.

Close to seven years ago, I found myself in just that situation. As hard as it was for me to cope with my husband’s illness and death, as a financial advisor, navigating the financial aspect of my life was not an issue. But my heart aches for those who are in a similar situation and unprepared. Believe it or not, many women still do not have a seat at the table when it comes to their finances. They may not know their true financial picture — which could be as solid as they anticipated, or much worse — and they often feel utterly overwhelmed by what seems like a mountain of decisions and tasks they face after loss.

Here are four ways you can prepare for being suddenly single and protect your financial future in the process.

Know your advisors. If you don’t already have a support team in place, comprising both professional and personal advisors, assemble one now. Finding trusted financial, legal and tax professionals who have the right mix of skills, experience and personality factors take time. Eventually, you’ll want them to work together to provide you with both big-picture and detailed advice about your situation. You may also want to talk with a close friend or relative — or, if that doesn’t feel comfortable for you, you could consider consulting with a therapist, financial coach or a neutral third party — who can offer personal support in the decision-making process. Everyone is different, so the choice about who will hear details about your financial status and decisions is yours to make. The key is creating a support team that is there for you in good times and bad.

Prepare your estate plan document. When you’re dealing with a life-threating illness, the last thing you want to do is start the estate-planning process. Here are some important questions to ask yourself now, and take action accordingly: Do you have a will, and does it mirror your wishes? If so, when was it last reviewed? Is there anything that needs to be added or updated? Do you have financial power of attorneys and health care proxies in place? Are the people you designated really the ones you’d want to take care of these matters on your behalf?

Be organized. Develop a file of all your and your spouse’s or partner’s assets and liabilities. It’s important to know whose name each asset or liability is in. Be sure to include bank and investment accounts, titles of your home and any other real estate, insurance policies, physical and digital assets, recurring bills, and any liabilities such as mortgages, lines of credit or credit cards. Gather all relevant documentation about the assets and liabilities (paperwork, websites and contact information, usernames and passwords, etc.) and keep this information in a secure location that both of you can access. This will save you a great deal of time and effort when you’re navigating what can be a complex process after a significant life change.          

Move quickly, yet take your time. Know that when you lose a spouse or partner there will be numerous steps you may need or want to take rather quickly, including making changes to beneficiaries of  insurance policies and retirement accounts; submitting insurance claims; getting the probate process started for the will; paying bills on time; and canceling monthly and annual memberships (such as professional associations, or a fitness or golf club). Other decisions — like selling a home, disbursing other assets or deciding where to live — may take more time and consideration depending on your overall financial picture and the advice you receive from your team of trusted advisors.

Plan. The basics of sound financial planning apply here, too. Understanding your income and expenses, having a smart saving and investing strategy, and maintaining a solid emergency fund for unanticipated life happenings are critical components of your overall financial well-being. You’ll want to do this in conjunction with your spouse or partner, and perhaps consider having your own accounts to ensure that you’ll be prepared for what comes your way.

With a keen eye toward preparation, the loss of a loved one doesn’t have to equate to a loss of financial health and security. Getting organized and being proactive goes a long way toward providing a secure financial future. As part of this process, it’s also helpful to think about the next generation and deciding when to include them in financial discussions. These life lessons can be invaluable teachable moments for showing our daughters how to be active leaders of their own financial lives, and for sharing with our sons the importance of working on their finances together with their spouses or partners.

Sylvia joined Morgan Stanley in 2015 from Barclays Wealth (formerly Lehman Brothers Private Investment Management). She had joined Lehman Brothers in 2003 from Bank of America’s Private Bank, where she had been a Senior Vice President and had an extensive lending career. Sylvia worked for eleven years in the bank’s Commercial Construction Real Estate Group. She also managed the Georgia lending unit for NationsBank, where she ran an $800 million lending portfolio.Sylvia was recognized in 2019 Forbes Best-In-State Wealth Advisors List[1]. She is co-chair of Morgan Stanley’s Atlanta chapter of Women in Wealth program, and a member of the firm’s National Diversity and Inclusion Council.

Sylvia earned a B.B.A. from University of Georgia and her MBA from Georgia State University. She is on the board of the Atlanta chapter of the American Jewish Committee and resides in Atlanta.

Sylvia Gort is a Private Wealth Advisor with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Atlanta. The information contained in this article is not a solicitation to purchase or sell investments. Any information presented is general in nature and not intended to provide individually tailored investment advice. The strategies and/or investments referenced may not be suitable for all investors as the appropriateness of a particular investment or strategy will depend on an investor’s individual circumstances and objectives. Investing involves risks and there is always the potential of losing money when you invest. The views expressed herein are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the views of Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, or its affiliates. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources considered to be reliable, but we do not guarantee their accuracy or completeness. Morgan Stanley and its Financial Advisors do not provide tax or legal advice. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, LLC, member SIPC. NMLS# 1428676

Source: (Feb. 2019). America’s Best-In-State Wealth Advisors ranking was developed by SHOOK Research and is based on in-person and telephone due diligence meetings and a ranking algorithm that includes: client retention, industry experience, review of compliance records, firm nominations; and quantitative criteria, including: assets under management and revenue generated for their firms. Investment performance is not a criterion because client objectives and risk tolerances vary, and advisors rarely have audited performance reports. Rankings are based on the opinions of SHOOK Research, LLC and are not indicative of future performance or representative of any one client’s experience. Neither Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC nor its Financial Advisors or Private Wealth Advisors pay a fee to Forbes or SHOOK Research in exchange for the ranking. For more information:

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