Trying to make ends meet is tough enough when a spouse dies, but not surprisingly, it’s even tougher when you are a woman.

There were 4.5 million Americans over the age of 65 living in poverty in 2016 and two-thirds of them were women. American widows see a 37% decline in household income when their spouse dies, while men see only a 22% drop.

Expenses for both sides – rent, food, medicine, transportation, etc. – remain the same, women just have a lot less money to deal with them, usually because they seldom remarry.

The U.S. Census Bureau says that in 2016, there were 9.7 million widows over the age of 65 and only 2.4 million widowers. That means that four times as many women as men are trying to make ends meet with only one income.

“When you’re used to having two Social Security checks come in every month and one of them goes away, life can suddenly get very expensive,” said Larry Kotlikoff, author of the New York Times best-selling book “Get What’s Yours – the Secrets of Maxing Out Your Social Security Benefits.”

“The surviving spouse has to deal with electricity, food, cars, maintenance and all the other day-to-day living expenses that don’t change, but they’ve only got one income to throw at it. That’s difficult for anyone.”

The Social Security Administration says that women, who reach the age of 65, are expected to live 86.3 years, but only 42.6% of them will be married. By comparison, 70.4% of men 65 and older are married. By the time women reach 75, only 33% of women are living with a spouse, while 67% of men still live with their spouse.

That means a majority of men are living in households receiving two Social Security checks a month. The majority of women are living in households receiving one.

It is a problem that is widely known and occasionally discussed among politicians, but little has been done to address the matter, even as 10,000 Baby Boomers roll into retirement age every single day.

Finding Financial Help for Widows

There are several government agencies, nonprofit organizations, churches, civic and community groups that offer widows financial assistance, but very few provide it on a continuing basis.

Social Security is the prime continuing resource available for widows. It allows you to claim either your spouse or your own benefits, whichever is greater, but there are a lot of hoops to jump through to maximize your benefits.

The Veterans Administration has a “Survivors Pension” benefit available to low-income, widows who don’t re-marry. The benefit is based on your yearly family income and the number of dependent children. In 2017, a widow without a dependent child, must have an income under $8,656 to get help.

The next-best source of continuing financial help for widows would be the spouse’s former employer. It may take a visit to that company’s Human Resources Department to find out how much he has in 401(k) or other retirement accounts and if there was a life insurance or healthcare benefit left for you.

Financial Help for Widows from Family

When widows experience financial problems, the most obvious place to turn is family, which can be a blessing, or curse, depending on how it is handled.

A study by Pew Research Center found that 75% of adults say they have a responsibility to offer financial assistance to elderly parents and many have the resources to do so. The study showed 43% of people making over $100,000 had a living parent over 65. The numbers dropped dramatically as income fell. Only 25% of people making $30,000-$100,000 had parents over 65 and 17% of those making less than $30,000 were in the same situation.

The quickest help from family is a gift of cash. The law allows widows to receive $14,000 from a single child with no tax implications either way. If the child is married, the limit goes up to $28,000. Another way to handle this might be to ask a child for a loan at 0% interest, or a very low, affordable rate.

That could be a quick ticket out of trouble like credit card debt, or past-due housing payments. However, if you are borrowing money from family as a loan, be sure to get the expected terms of repayment in writing. That will help avoid the financial drama that tears apart some families and could cause all sorts of family headaches when you die and your will goes to probate.

Online Financial Assistance for Widows

A visit to benefits.gov might be the best resource for finding government agencies outside of the Social Security and Veterans Administration that offer benefits for widows. You must fill out a questionnaire to see which agencies you qualify for assistance from, but the site is very extensive and useful.

The benefits.gov list includes resources like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamp program); Medicaid for health coverage assistance; LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) for utility assistance; Rural Rental Assistance for help with housing supplements to reduce rent; and Reemployment Assistance Insurance Program that provides unemployment benefits for eligible widows.

Another government website that just opened – aging.gov – offers information on a large assortment of topics, dominated by financial assistance.

Most of the nonprofit organizations, churches and community groups also can be found online. They usually offer help on a one-time basis for things like food, housing, clothing, furniture and other basic needs.

There are some national organizations devoted to widows –The Modern Widows Club, The Liz Logelin Foundation, Widow’s Hope, Acts of Simple Kindness (ASK), – but much of the help is found at local churches and charities.

For example, many Catholic churches have a ministry called the St. Vincent de Paul Society that deals specifically with people in a financial crisis. Like most church organizations, their assistance is on a one-time-only basis for rent, utilities, food, etc, but if you need immediate help, churches and local charities are probably your best bet.

What Happens to Your Home When Your Spouse Dies?

If a widow owned a home with her spouse, paying off the mortgage is her responsibility after his death. For women who did little more than sign the original loan agreement, this can be a shocking experience.

The good news is that if you co-signed the loan with your spouse, federal law prohibits the lender from demanding the entire amount due at his death. Mortgage terms remain the same, as long as you make the monthly payments. The only difference is that you own the entire house and its value, instead of owning just half.

If you are having trouble keeping up with payments, check with your lender to see if your husband had an insurance policy on the mortgage that would pay off the remaining balance.

You might get financial help by way of refinancing the loan. A lower interest rate and monthly payment would provide immediate relief, but might also mean a longer payoff period for the loan. Before finding out what happens if you pay your mortgage late, call your lender to find out if they have a hardship program you can enroll in.

One other possibility: A reverse mortgage. You would have to be 62 or older and owe less than half the home’s value to take advantage of this through a lender. You also could try a reverse mortgage through one of your children or family members, but that could cause real strife in the family if things went sour.

The final option is to simply sell the home and use the money to find a more affordable living situation.

What Happens to Credit Card Debt When Your Spouse Dies?

Dealing with credit card debt after death for which there is no simple answer, but the easiest way to look at it is this: If your name was on the credit card account as a co-signer, you owe whatever debt has accrued there, whether you actively used the card or not.

If you were a co-signer (sometimes called a joint account holder) and do not pay on the card, that information will go on your credit report and likely have a sizeable negative impact on your credit score for seven years. Your account could be sold to a collection agency, which would pursue it until the statute of limitations (4-5 years in most states) runs out.

If you can’t pay the debt, you would be better off seeking help from a nonprofit credit counseling agency for advice on a debt management plan, a debt consolidation loan or debt settlement to take care of the problem before it reached a collection agency.

On the other hand, if your name is on the account simply as an authorized user, you are not responsible for the debts, but the estate is. If money is available when the estate is settled, it will go toward paying the balance of the credit card debt.

Beyond that? Well, it all depends on the circumstances, including whether you are a resident of the 10 states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin) that operate under “community property” laws.

In some (not all!) of the community property law states, the surviving spouse is responsible for all the deceased spouse’s debts, even if they had separate accounts. If you live in one of those 10 states, it’s best to consult a lawyer to find out for certain if you’re responsible for the debt.

Does Social Security Save Widows?

Social Security is the primary financial resource available for most widows, but unraveling all the knots tied up in claiming your spouse’s benefits is not an easy task.

That’s why Kotlikoff, an economist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University, became a best-selling author and why he thinks widows should be looking beyond Social Security to ease financial woes.

“Social Security benefits definitely help, but not nearly as much as people would want,” Kotlikoff told InCharge.org. “There are all sort of gaps in the system and ways you have to deal with them to get what you deserve.

“But inevitably, the picture is not all that good for widows. Women receive a disproportionately small share of the benefits. That’s why so many of them end up impoverished as they get older.”

Kotlikoff didn’t want to try and unwind all the “what if” possibilities for widows and social security, beyond suggesting they get an early start in understanding the system because the older you get, the more it becomes a burden than a benefit.

The Health and Human Services Profile of Older Americans done in 2015 said that 32% of the population over 65 reported incomes of less than $15,000 and Kotlikoff said that the number of widows with income close to the poverty level increases as they age.

“I would suggest that widows make a lifetime budget plan as early as possible,” Kotlikoff said. “Figure out how much you’re going to need to maintain the lifestyle you want to lead and then look at your expected benefits from social security, life insurance, retirement plans, pensions, – anywhere you expect to get money – and see if that’s going to support it.

“People usually underestimate how much they will need and you can get hurt very badly is you screw this up.”

Tips for Widows Dealing with Social Security

Everyone knows that the Social Security Administration is supposed to be the financial pillow people can fall on when they reach retirement age, but few people realize what a labyrinth of twists and turns the system is.

Here are a few things you should know before trying to claim your benefits.

  • Surprisingly, only 3.7 million of the estimated 10 million widows in the United States received Social Security benefits in 2016.
  • It is best to apply for benefits by visiting a Social Security office in person. Call ahead for an appointment. You will save hours of frustration.
  • To receive full social security benefits, you must be 66 years and two months old. You can start receiving reduced benefits as a widow at age 60. Full retirement benefits are at age 66 years and two months and if you can wait, maximum benefits come at age 70.
  • Bring original copies of your spouse’s death certificate, birth certificate, marriage certificate and proof of U.S. citizenship. You must have originals – not photocopies! – to make claims at the Social Security office. A photocopy of a W-2 form or self-employment tax returns are also necessary.
  • Familiarize yourself with the various options available to widows. You can take either your husband’s social security benefits or your own, but you can’t take both. In some cases, it may be beneficial to take your own, until your spouse’s benefits have maxed out, which would happen when he would have reached 70.
  • If your husband received Social Security payments before he died and checks continue to come to you, DO NOT cash them. The government eventually will reclaim all the money they paid after his death. If you cashed the checks, you are liable for that amount and must pay it back.

Widows Financial Problems Get Worse with Age

Though women are catching up rapidly, the majority of those eligible for Social Security and retirement benefits are underfunded when they reach retirement age. The combination of a lifetime of working for less because of the gender wage gap and taking time away from work to raise children, usually means lower Social Security benefits and 401(k) or company pension plan for retirement savings.

According the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the median income for women over the age of 65 was $17,375, or about 80% less than the median income for men ($31,169) of the same age.

It’s hard to balance a budget with 80% less income.

“And it only gets worse as women get older,” said Cindy Hounsell, President of the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement (WISER). “By the time they get to their 80s, a lot of women are near poverty because they never had the discussion with their husband about “what’s going to happen to me if you’re gone?”

Hounsell founded WISER to try and get women to do some planning for a future that is almost a statistical certainty: Women outlive men, and for the most part, end up living alone.

“Odds are that if you’re a woman, you’re going to be going it alone at some point late in life,” Hounsell said. “Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t know where the money is, where it’s supposed to be coming from and how to manage money on their own so when their spouse dies, they’re stuck. They don’t know what to do.”