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Published May 16, 2013, 11:40 PM

A vulnerable time: Widows need to guard against ‘financial wolves’

FARGO - Beth Schaible was a young mother when she first faced the possibility of widowhood. Her husband, Calvin, was diagnosed with skin cancer in his 30s. Doctors gave him 50/50 odds, she says. He survived, but the scare helped the Fargo couple stay connected and communicate about the “what ifs” in life, including their financial picture.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

FARGO - Beth Schaible was a young mother when she first faced the possibility of widowhood. Her husband, Calvin, was diagnosed with skin cancer in his 30s. Doctors gave him 50/50 odds, she says.

He survived, but the scare helped the Fargo couple stay connected and communicate about the “what ifs” in life, including their financial picture.

“Not a day went by that Cal didn’t think about being thankful for each day he had,” Beth Schaible says.

More than two decades later, the cancer returned. Their conversations about funeral plans and finances continued. Cal died Christmas Day, 2011. Schaible became a widow at age 53.

Earlier this month, Schaible was among more than 100 women who attended a Fargo workshop for widows, wives and friends, sponsored by Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. Speaker Kathleen Rehl, a certified financial planner, is author of a financial guidebook for widows called “Moving Forward on Your Own,” also the name of her workshop.

The workshop wasn’t as much a Finance 101 course as an impetus to get women thinking about their futures and the role money plays in that.

Rehl, of Tampa, Fla., calls her work a “personal ministry.”

“People gain so much hope when they know they are not experiencing something alone,” Rehl says.

Her husband died of liver cancer in February 2007, two months after diagnosis. Her mother passed shortly after. Her father had died two years prior.

Rehl says she thought she was going crazy. There were sleepless nights. She constantly misplaced or forgot things.

Despite her education and career as a financial planner, she feared becoming a bag lady.

“If I’m having these fears, what about my widowed sisters who don’t have this knowledge and experience?” she thought.

In the workshop, Rehl delivered what she calls “shocking statistics” about widows, which she describes as the fastest growing demographic.

There will soon be 12 million widows in the U.S., with about 800,000 added each year.

The average age a wife becomes a widow is 56.

Up to half of women are widowed by age 65 and two-thirds at age 75-plus.

Seventy percent of Baby Boomer wives will outlive their husbands, and 80 percent will be single at death.

Widowed female seniors outnumber widowed males by more than 4 to 1.

Only 8 percent of widows age 55 to 64 remarry, and by 65, only 2 percent remarry.

Rehl describes the flurry of emotions that happen when a spouse dies: disbelief, loss of identity, anger, fear, guilt, confusion, sadness.

Plus, widows feel less secure about financial matters after the death of their spouse, she says.

“It’s a very difficult time, and it can also be a treacherous time,” Rehl says, noting the brain functions differently during grief.

Rehl says widows need to avoid rushing into financial decisions. Some things need to be done soon – collect insurance money, apply for benefits, analyze cash flow – but much can wait. She advises “parking” any insurance payments temporarily. Don’t sell or pay off the house right away, she says.

Women also need to “get real” about their finances, making sure enough money is coming in to cover expenses, and that their investments still make sense. “You’re in a different place, a different space now,” Rehl says.

Widows especially need to “beware of financial wolves” – those peddling financial schemes as well as ill-intentioned suitors.

“There unfortunately are people who prey on women because they know we are so vulnerable,” Rehl says.

Some men are looking for “a nurse, a purse or a mother,” Rehl says, noting she encountered all three when she started dating again.

Rehl offered advice beyond strictly the financial realm as well. She encouraged women to think about and rate their life values.

She recommended they use some of their resources for massages, pedicures or other hands-on treatments. Touch is something greatly missed after a spouse dies, she says.

“Death is still something we don’t talk about enough and we don’t know how to deal with it,” she says. “It’s one of the biggest transitions a woman will go through.”

In her workshop, Rehl outlined stages of widowhood, during which a woman transitions from being a widow to an independent woman. She says it’s common to bounce between them.

First is grief, when the woman is numb. That stage requires “financial triage,” she says. No big decisions should be made and only immediate financial needs addressed.

Next is growth, a journey, during which general planning takes place. This is where decisions about investments, taxes and home ownership can be made.

Finally is grace, she says, when a new life evolves. Women should begin advanced planning, including their estate and charitable gifts.

DorotheJean Hetland of Fargo says she was insecure about attending Rehl’s workshop, but something told her to go. Her husband died five years ago.

She took away that whichever stage she’s in, it’s OK, and there’s somebody to keep in touch with regarding the money.

Schaible, now 54, says she was surprised to learn the average age of widowhood is in the 50s. She also appreciated the advice to not rush into any financial decisions – a mistake she says she has avoided.

Schaible says her husband understood the finances better than she did, but was good about explaining everything. They always met with their financial adviser together.

One thing Schaible says they didn’t do as good of a job of was keeping necessary documents together and updated.

She suggests having one file with all the necessary information and contacts, and keeping that up-to-date. She’s trying to do that now for her kids in case something happened to her.

Schaible encourages all couples to have an open dialogue, even if widowhood is not expected.

“You think you may have many years,” Schaible says, noting she has many friends whose husbands died unexpectedly. “They didn’t get that opportunity to talk things through until the end.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556

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