How to Handle Your Finances as a Young Widow or Widower

It was April 10, 2018, and Colin Brougham hadn’t sent his usual text to his wife that he was biking home. Instead, he lay dead a few blocks away after a commuter train struck him.

“I knew he was dead before I knew he was dead,” recalled Rachel Brougham, his widow. “My son and I went to the scene, and when I was told it was him, I screamed so loud I think all of Minneapolis heard me.”

Mr. Brougham was only 39.

“My life as I knew it changed in an instant,” Ms. Brougham, now 46, said. “My future as I imagined was stolen. Grief changes your brain chemistry. It changes how you think, how you interact with others, how you work. It literally changes every single thing about your life.”

Those widowed in their 20s and 30s, few of whom may even have a will, can feel even more stunned and unprepared — who expects to die that young?

Ms. Brougham, like anyone whose spouse dies unexpectedly, suddenly faced a variety of complex financial decisions: how to handle mortgage payments, car and student loans, leases, and credit card debts. Blinded by grief, exhausted and overwhelmed, the bereaved must also plan and pay for cremation or funeral costs.

Social Security’s one-time death benefit is only $255, while the median American funeral in 2021 cost $6,971 (with cremation) or $7,848 (with a viewing and burial), according to the National Funeral Directors Association. Social Security survivor benefits are also available for children. Ms. Brougham’s 15-year-old son, Thomas, receives $2,149 a month until he turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever is later.

“As a certified financial planner, and someone who specializes in supporting young widows and widowers, I’ve seen firsthand the raw heartache of this unique community,” said Brian K. Seymour II, the founder and chief executive of Prosperitage Wealth in Atlanta. “Losing your partner at a young age, whether to illness or a sudden accident, throws you into a storm of grief and financial upheaval.”

Even if it feels overwhelming, Mr. Seymour recommends getting control of your financial situation immediately.

“Gather all your financial documents — bank statements, investment accounts, life insurance policies, wills — and get yourself organized,” he said. “If you feel lost, seek professional help from a fee-only fiduciary financial adviser who specializes in young widows and widowers. We understand your unique challenges and can tailor a plan that considers your income, debt, benefits and goals.”

Those who have more time to prepare — the spouse is dying of a terminal disease, for example — also face making difficult decisions amid emotional distress.

Sarah Seib, 39, whose husband, Jason Markle, died in 2022 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as A.L.S. or Lou Gehrig’s disease, had a steady job with a local technology company. Mr. Markle worked for many years at Syracuse University as an undergraduate administrator, but the demands of his disease quickly turned Ms. Seib into his full-time caregiver, costing her that income even as she owed $50,000 in student debt.

As her husband’s health deteriorated, he kept working to the very end because the couple desperately needed his income and health insurance. He communicated through a Tobii Dynavox tablet, which he used by blinking. A GoFundMe campaign provided $20,000 to help with growing costs.

Mr. Markle had a 401(k) plan, but tapping into it early would have meant paying a penalty and taxes. The day he died, Ms. Seib lost access to his health insurance. Her mother, who had moved in to help Ms. Seib financially and emotionally as her husband’s health declined, still lives in Syracuse, N.Y., with her and now pays half the mortgage.

“You need help from all sides,” Ms. Seib said. “A widow’s head is not right and won’t be right for a long time.”

Francisco Rosado, a barber and D.J. who goes by Frank Rose in Orlando, Fla., lost his wife, Rebekkah Rosado, when he was 34 and she was 33. He had been her caretaker for three years as she fought a form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. Ms. Rosado had run a thriving wedding planning business and kept working as much as she could, but the couple sold their house to cut expenses and pay medical bills. They also received $10,000 from a GoFundMe campaign that allowed Mr. Rosado to stop working and spend time with his wife before she died.

For many people whose spouse is from another country, communicating with family abroad can add complications or welcome support — or both, as it did for Robin Truiett-Theodorson, who, in 2008, became a widow at 36 after five and a half years of marriage to Mark Theodorson, a British man.

Her father assumed her late husband’s car payments, and her family “helped me quite a bit,” she said. Her mother-in-law in Britain sent some money, and Ms. Truiett-Theodorson was grateful their home in Baltimore had no mortgage. She deferred her student debt for 18 months and consolidated her credit card debt.

Many young widows and widowers will also have to face their spouse’s debts, which can add an enormous burden if they are not discharged by creditors.

Jeanette Koncikowski was separated from her husband, Mark, when he died two years after completing chiropractic school. Both were 36, with children 5 and 9 years old. He died of a rare condition, sudden unexplained death in epilepsy, owing about $150,000 on student loans.

“In order to finance that amount, we did a mix of private and federal loans, and he was the sole signatory, later consolidated,” said Ms. Koncikowski, now 45 and living in Eden, N.Y. “At the time of his death, I was originally told by the lender that I would have to pay them back even though I did not co-sign. They said since we were married when the debt was accrued, I was responsible for the debt.”

But once she shared her separation agreement and her husband’s death certificate with the lender, the entire debt was given. “It was a small saving grace in an otherwise horrific experience,” Ms. Koncikowski said.

Daniel Kopp, a certified financial planner in Sarasota, Fla., who lost a spouse when he was 31, said it mattered when the debt was taken on.

“If it was before the marriage and the couple does not live in a community property state — there are nine — then the surviving spouse would generally not be responsible for the student loans,” he said. “Community property states can make the surviving spouse be held liable for paying the private loans if they were taken on after the marriage even if the spouse did not co-sign. It’s the classic financial planning answer: It depends.”

“Student loan borrowers who die will have their federal student loans discharged by providing documentation like a death certificate,” Mr. Kopp added. “However, when it comes to private student loans, it will depend on if there was a co-signer and terms of the loan. Some private lenders will also discharge the debt, but others may attempt to get the surviving spouse to pay.”

Personal, unsecured debts like those from credit cards are generally written off by the issuing companies, Mr. Kopp said.

“I even had a widowed client that tried to pay off the $5,000 balance, and Chase sent her back the check,” he said. “Auto loans typically stay with the vehicle, so if the spouse receives the vehicle through the will, the loan would then go to the spouse.”

Everyone who has received life insurance funds after a spouse’s death knows the mixed emotions they bring.

“It was a great sense of relief — and guilt,” Ms. Brougham said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, my husband’s dead and now I have one million dollars.” In fact, she received $1.575 million from both term and whole life policies, which she invested for future needs.

Mr. Rosado received $250,000 in an insurance payout, and Mr. Kopp said he had received about $300,000. This money helped free them from financial panic at the worst moment of their young lives. In addition, life insurance proceeds are not considered taxable income.

The Broughams had bought life insurance when they were 24 and 25 and Ms. Brougham was freelancing full time for a small newspaper, even though they felt the cost was unaffordable — $1,308 a year.

Being prepared, financially and emotionally, means having difficult conversations even if you feel you’re way too young to have them. The spouses of Ms. Brougham, Ms. Truiett-Theodorson, Ms. Seib and Ms. Koncikowski didn’t have a will or do advance estate planning. But Mr. Rosado’s did.

“I didn’t think death would come in my 30s,” he said. “Maybe in my 70s or 90s.”

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