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Smart Moves: How to plan as widow

Anyone who loses a spouse is well advised to wait for a time before making a major move.
by Ellen James Martin Published: July 12, 2014

Patricia Nowak was thrust into widowhood suddenly at the age of 47, when her husband was struck and killed crossing a street. She was overwhelmed by grief and the realization that she’d become both the sole parent and provider for her young children. But her problems multiplied when, just 18 days after the accident, her refrigerator caught fire, burning the family’s house to the ground.

Tackling one issue at a time, Nowak, a public relations executive, eventually restored calm and order to her life. Because of the hardships of the experience, she later dedicated herself to helping other widows of all ages rebuild their lives. Drawing on her experience, she authored a book: “The ABC’s of Widowhood.”

Unlike many widows, Nowak didn’t confront the thorny question of whether to sell the family home. But she says it’s common for those who’ve lost a spouse to confront complicated real estate matters, including whether to put their property on the market.

Nowak said that anyone who loses a spouse is well advised to wait for a time before making a major move.

“If you can afford to wait, don’t make any big decisions for the first six months, because you’re in a fog for at least that long,” Nowak said.

Nowak said the first order of business should be to organize your finances.

Though many young women now take a vital interest in money matters, she said those who become widowed at a later age often need financial counsel to make solid choices. But she advises against turning to relatives for such help, because they typically lack objectivity.

Rather, she recommends seeking advice from neutral third parties whose names you obtain through business or professional associates.

Arlen Olberding, a financial planner with the Garrett Planning Network ( said widows who own a big family house should think carefully before deciding to sell and move to a small condo.

“Trading down to a condo can have financial benefits, including a reduction in energy costs and upkeep demands. Yet, after taking your monthly condo fees into account, you may save less than expected. And your lifestyle could be compromised,” Olberding said.

Instead of buying a condo, he said widows might be better off downsizing to a small, one-level house.

Here are a few pointers for widows (and widowers) trying to formulate their housing plans:

• Make sure your finances are in order before making any move.

Mark Nash, a real estate expert and author of “1001 Tips for Buying and Selling a Home,” said keeping a large family home indefinitely often means serious trade-offs for those who survive a spouse.

“I recommend you consult a certified financial planner or accountant before making any major real estate decisions. They can help you crunch numbers and forecast the implications of any options you’re considering,” Nash said.

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