Smart Moves by Ellen James Martin

Moving After a Spouse Dies

Herb Knoll was just 57 when his wife died after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Overwhelmed with grief, he headed to his local Barnes & Noble in search of a book offering guidance for widowers. Unhappy with the limited selection, he decided to author “The Widower’s Journey: Helping Men Rebuild After Their Loss.”

For his research, the former banker reached out to more than 40 men who’d also lost their wives. These interviews led him to conclude that many men are so flooded with emotion after losing a spouse that they make mistaken lifestyle decisions, coping poorly with issues related to their both their health and finances.

“During this vulnerable time, many people, and especially men, are very impulsive,” Knoll says.

One impulsive decision many who lose a spouse make is to hurriedly sell a property they’ve inhabited for years. Knoll says such a quick sale could be a mistake from both a financial and emotional perspective.

Of course, some who are widowed are compelled to liquidate their property quickly if the loss of a spouse’s paycheck makes it impossible for them to meet their mortgage payments. In such a case, it’s usually better to sell than face involuntary foreclosure.

Also, Knoll says those who are very elderly when their spouse passes away may wish to sell their home promptly and relocate to live near grown children or grandchildren --given that they can anticipate relatively few additional years of life.

Knoll urges those who’ve lost a spouse to death to connect with others facing the same situation. He says this is especially critical for widowers who live alone or in rural communities.

“Many men who’ve lost their wives live in the shadows. Their wife was the linchpin of their social life and now she’s gone,” he says.

To help facilitate interactions among widowers, Knoll created the Widowers Support Network, a nonprofit group that now connects 370 men, as well as a number of widows, in 19 countries. He invites anyone who’s lost a spouse to join this virtual network or to reach him directly through his website: WidowersSupportNetwork.com.

Knoll urges anyone who’s lost a spouse to strengthen their support network during this challenging period. Here are a few other pointers for widows and widowers:

-- Ponder any housing moves from a holistic perspective.

For many who’ve lost a spouse, keeping a large family home indefinitely means serious financial trade-offs, says Mark Nash, a longtime real estate broker and author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home.” He suggests you consult a trusted financial planner or accountant before making any major real estate decisions.

“Crunching the numbers will tell you a lot about your options and help you face reality,” Nash says.

In advance of a visit to see your financial adviser, Nash suggests you spend some time with your checkbook and credit card statements to determine how much your house is costing you in mortgage payments, taxes and maintenance outlays.

-- Question whether moving to a condo is the best choice for you.

Arlen Olberding, a certified financial planner affiliated with the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (napfa.org) says there are always multiple factors to consider before making a major housing change.

He says those suffering in the aftermath of a spouse’s death often sell a large family home in favor of a smaller unit in a condo development. Yet after taking the monthly condo fees into account, they’ve saved little.

“Making a lateral transition doesn’t necessarily reduce your housing costs. Instead of buying a condo with all those fees, you might be better off downsizing to a smaller, one-level house that could serve you well in retirement,” he says.

-- Take seriously your emotional attachment to the family home.

Some women are strongly attached to the home where they raised their children and want to keep a place with extra space for their extended family visits -- a concept called the “mecca house.”

Nash says he’s worked with many older women who live to regret the sale of the spacious family home.

“Once the family house is gone, they feel like fish out of water,” he says.

Throughout his real estate career, Nash says he’s noticed that more women than men want to keep the family home in the wake of widowhood. Still, of those many want to slightly alter the house, perhaps with the help of an interior designer.

“This way, a woman can put her imprint on the property for the next stage of her life,” Nash says.

-- Make any housing decision an element in your overall life planning.

To whom should you turn to help chart your housing plans after a spouse dies? Sometimes a real estate agent who’s willing to listen to your story, (and won’t push you to sell), is a better bet than a close friend or family member, according to Nash.

“Your family and friends aren’t always the most objective advisers. Besides an agent, you might want to talk to a therapist, counselor or life coach,” he says. (To contact Ellen James Martin, email her at ellenjamesmartin@gmail.com.)