HOW TO BE A WIDOW
If you are a wife, the hard probability is that you will outlive your husband. Whether you are left in financial comfort or stringent poverty, widowhood inevitably poses other problems-emotional, social and domestic. Here, from the experience of other women, are some guidelines on
I LIVE ON A STREET two blocks long, and twenty-six of my neighbors are widows. That isn't an uncommon proportion in older residential districts where the houses are small and near the centre of town. The prevalence of widows among us (sixty-four out of every thousand Canadian women at the last census) is one of the better-known national statistics, but like that other natural phenomenon, the weather, not much is done about it. The salient fact is that today a woman can expect to outlive a man by nearly six years. And since the average wife is about three and a half years younger than her husband, chances are she’ll spend more than nine years as a widow.
But even people who are familiar with instances where women arc suddenly left alone with a houseful of children and a handful of bills, are reluctant to accept the fact that it could happen to them. Over the past few weeks, talking to experts in law offices, trust companies and social agencies —and to families without fathers — I’ve learned that widowhood, the almost inevitable destiny of married women, finds most wives tragically unprepared.
An investment dealer told me, “Often a man leaves about ten thousand dollars. He'll have a few thousand dollars’ worth of insurance, a small equity in his house, some cash savings or bonds diminished by the cost of his last illness. Ten thousand dollars’ capital might earn ten dollars a week, which doesn’t buy many groceries.’’
An insurance executive said, “It’s amazing how ignorant most women are till it happens. There aren't many who can look after things on their own. They almost resist understanding their situation.”
A young lawyer told me that a man who dies without making a will leaves his widow a legacy of extra costs and worries — then he sheepishly admitted he hadn't made one himself.
A woman whose only source of income is a widow’s allowance of seventy-five dollars a month from the provincial
government told me, “My husband had no insurance or savings, but we had a good life and I'm glad. I'd hate to have people say I'm spending his money now he's dead."
Another said ruefully, “My husband was a worrier and planned every detail to provide me with a reasonable income. What we didn't realize was how lonely I'd be.”
One of these women has been a widow for seven years and the other for fifteen, yet each cried a little as we talked. There are aspects of loneliness you never get used to, ordeals for which you can't prepare yourself. What a woman can do is get some idea of the problems she would face if her husband died, and try to plan ahead so that her circumstances won't be drastically changed. What does her husband own and what does he owe? How much insurance does he carry and would she have to pay estate tax on it? Has she ready cash in her own name? Could she support her children? Would her friends comfort her or drop her? Who would guide her through the mechanics of settling an estate? Would there be an estate to settle?
The fact of death sets off a chain of legal procedure, any part of which a widow may have to carry out alone. Often family or friends help her with funeral arrangements: transferring death certificate from doctor to undertaker, notifying relatives, insurance companies, lawyer and clergyman, choosing a coffin on which the price of a funeral is usually contingent. Though resistance to elaborate funerals is growing, widows are still susceptible to the undertaker’s suggestion, “People are buried in the style they lived in." Cremation, which requires a ten-dollar coroner’s certificate, is cheaper: in Toronto it costs sixty dollars — one hundred and forty dollars less than the city pays an undertaker to bury an indigent citizen. The ceremonies of grief, agonizing for some widows, lend others emotional support or religious reassurance. Like weddings, funerals are a time of heightened feeling when genuine kindness comes to the surface, sometimes along with old family grievances. / continued on page 43
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There’s one thing a widow is never short of: it’s advice—from everybody
HOW TO BE A WIDOW
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Several widows told me they were disturbed by tactless advice. Like pregnant women, they seem to be considered fair game for any wellmeaning meddler. As one man lay dying, a nurse suggested that his wife should go job-hunting, “to take her mind off things.” After he died, one of his associates asked how she could possibly live on what he left; as she remarked, “I was scared enough without that.” Another widow said, “I felt pressured because everyone had a bright idea about what I should be doing. They’d tell me to sell the house, rent the top floor, get a job, stay home with the kids, join women's groups. It was exasperating.”
A gynecologist whose husband recently died told me, “When you’re bereaved, small grievances hurt because everything seems magnified and out of focus. For a while I completely lost interest in newspapers and current events, and I lost my memory for detail just when I needed it to deal with important matters. You're in a period of shock, like an acute illness, and you gradually recover. You're not the same person you were before but you’re a normal person and you can cope.”
Beware of back-fence lawyers
“Widows do all sorts of weird irrational things,” a lawyer said. “Some are difficult clients, suspicious or clinging, and they’re awfully prone to take the advice of their next-door neighbor and then come and confess that they’ve done something rash. I’ve seen them go through a sizable estate in two years. We try to get them to wait six months before they make decisions.”
Some things won’t wait. If she’s left destitute, a widow can draw emergency funds from a local welfare department and then apply to the provincial government for one of the allowances (about seventy-five dollars a month) made to widows over sixty and younger mothers with dependent children. A widow with a very small income of her own qualifies for a partial allowance and a medical welfare card.
Even a widow who can afford to surround herself with advisers has to answer questions and make decisions. She'll be asked about her husband’s debts, possessions and gifts, and the whereabouts of his will, securities and insurance policies. If she has no cash on hand or bank account in her own name she’ll have to borrow money for immediate use. Her husband’s assets, including their joint bank account and safety deposit box, are frozen until his estate taxes are paid, except for certain resources which she can draw within a few days. She can take up to twenty-five hundred dollars from bank deposits and apply for prompt payment allowance from each company that insured her husband's life. In Quebec the maximum prompt payment allowance is three thousand dollars per company, in On-
tario and B.C. it’s five thousand dollars, and in other provinces, $11,500. Any policy for not more than nine hundred dollars she can claim immediately without notifying the government.
After the will is probated and within six months of death, the executor— often the widow herself—sends the federal government a tax return list-
ing all the dead man’s assets and an estimate of tax payable. Though it looks much like an ordinary incometax form, this document is loaded with enough obscure legal terminology to daunt any widow who tackles it without a lawyer. After a basic widow’s exemption of sixty thousand dollars plus ten thousand dollars for each de-
pendent child, tax is calculated according to a scale that starts at ten percent. Executors have to file separate returns in three provinces, which levy their own succession duties — residents of Quebec and Ontario get a fifty-percent cut in federal tax; those in B. C., seventy-five percent.
The great majority of widows do
not, however, have to worry about estate taxes—only three percent of Canadians leave taxable assets.
Often a widow's first major decision is whether to stay in her house, move to a smaller house or apartment, or even double up with another widow and her family. If she has small children it’s usually best for them to stay in the same school area, but she may find herself odd woman out in a community of married couples. If her house carries a heavy
mortgage she’ll probably find it wiser to sell unless she can carry it by renting rooms or an upstairs apartment. A kind of insurance designed to protect widows against this problem is mortgage coverage, a diminishing term policy that pays off the balance of the mortgage if the husband dies before the house is paid for. Family income coverage, which pays a widow a monthly allowance till her children are independent, is also useful for young families.
If a man buys a life-insurance policy payable either to his wife or to his estate, it’s taxable, but if she takes out a policy on his life it’s tax-free. She should pay the premiums from her own bank account because the money in a joint account could be her husband’s. Ontario and B. C. also exempt from duty any annuity worth up to twelve hundred dollars a year bought by a man for his wife, plus another twelve hundred dollars worth of annuities for his children. An in-
surance man told me, “I’ve seen one estate where this meant a saving of forty-four hundred dollars in duty.”
The commonest way to reduce succession duty is to leave your capital to your children and a life interest to your wife, which saves paying duty again when your wife dies. If a husband sets up a trust like this, or has a large complicated estate, he may hire a professional executor, a trust company that administers the estate for a fee. Widows whose income is doled out by a trust company view the arrangement with mixed feelings. I know one woman who trots out happily for a shopping spree whenever her cheque arrives. Another is an astute businesswoman who speculates successfully with what spare cash she has and regrets that she can’t touch the principal, because she’s convinced she could make her money work harder than the trust company can.
On the other hand, widows are traditionally an easy mark for attentive shysters with spurious investment schemes. A stockbroker said, “I’ve seen widows exploited viciously.” Elderly women living alone are favorite victims for small-time crooks. According to the fraud squad of the Ontario Provincial Police, “The latest games are these house-repairs and fake bank-inspector deals. Confidence men not only still exist, they’re getting smarter every day.”
Most women think in terms of principal rather than interest, and forget that we live in an expanding economy where a fixed income is worth less in buying power year by year. A widow who inherits one hundred thousand dollars feels prosperous, but her income of perhaps five thousand dollars a year is usually well below her husband's salary. Some companies pay survivor benefits to widows of employees who die on the job or in retirement; others don’t, and a man’s company medical insurance policy dies with him. On the other hand, the widow of a heavily insured man may be left richer than ever before. Toronto stockbroker Violet Cook advises widows to dump their husband’s speculative shares and invest in dividend-paying blue-chip securities, but sometimes finds it hard to pry them loose from a worthless stock because they're sure their husbands wouldn’t have bought it in the
To many employers she’s less employable than a teenage school dropout
first place if it wasn’t going to rise.
Most young widows want to work, and few can afford not to, but without a marketable skill finding a job can be heartbreakingly difficult. A wife’s best insurance is a professional degree or a course such as typing or practical nursing—plus a resilient disposition. A woman in her thirties will be shocked to find that most employers consider her too old to train into a junior job, and a woman who has been a capable housewife and the mainstay of her Home And School Association may be horrified to learn that in the labor market she’s less employable than a teenage school dropout. Her special talents for entertaining, heading committees and keeping her family healthy and happy are admirable but not profitable. She’ll have to think what skills she can actually sell and what work is needed. Such useful jobs as housekeeping are always more available than such glamorous ones as being a hostess at a summer resort. Exchanging a housewife’s adaptable timetable for a nine-to-five routine takes selfdiscipline, but jobs with more apparent freedom, such as selling real estate, can be just as demanding. I talked to one woman who was left penniless except for an inadequate insurance policy her husband had bought from an inept agent. She decided that if such an agent could sell insurance, anyone could, and used the money to support herself while she took a course in corporate finance, then joined an insurance company and soon became a top saleswoman.
The trouble with children
Ironically, the children who make it necessary for a widow to work sometimes make it impossible. Though a woman with a stake in her job is theoretically more valuable than a marriage-minded baby doll, some widows insist that dependent children are a liability because employers think they won’t work overtime or when their children are sick. And before she goes job-hunting, a widow with small children must solve the problem of day care, one of the great gaps in our society. Only a woman earning a professional salary can afford a housekeeper, and there are few subsidized day nurseries. Most working widows settle for a makeshift arrangement that’s hard on the children and themselves.
Faced with raising a fatherless family, a woman has to guard against overprotecting them or .retreating into her private grief. She should share her feelings because a child shielded against family tragedy invents his own worse horrors. She must reassure small children that they’ll be safe, and avoid burdening older ones with all her own worries and responsibilities. The turbulent teens, a peak time of problems for all parents, bring extra headaches for a woman alone. And when her children grow up, she must be especially on guard against interfering in their marriages or stinting herself to pay their expenses.
Whether or not she has children,
each widow must face a lonely time of reassessment and new beginning. How she comes to terms with herself depends to a great extent on how she felt about her husband. Even a woman who's much better off without her brawling brutal mate, unconsciously hides her own mixed feelings of guilt and relief behind a mask of
grief. A few never emerge from a private hell of irregular meals, unmade beds, early drinks and tranquilizers. Others find a curious strength in knowing that their husband is out of pain at last, and that they must take on his responsibilities. As one put it, “Self-pity is destructive and if you let yourself become an unpleasant
person you're still stuck with yourself.”
A widow also discovers that she has to work much harder to make and keep a place in society. As a single woman, she can't afford to be a bore, a moaner, a gossipmonger or flirt. The kind of gentle backchat with a continued on pae 48
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friend's husband that no one would have noticed when she was married now may put her friend on guard and encourage the husband to make a pass. She'll find that eligible men are scarce, and that her feelings may be complicated by a sense of disloyalty to her dead husband, or by the disapproval of her growing children. A woman widowed at thirty told me, "When you haven’t dated since college, it’s a shock to be introduced to potbellied bald men in their forties and realize you’re lucky to meet them.”
The social effort required of a widow reads like the advice usually handed out to teenagers. She should dress carefully in clothes that are becoming but not extreme. She should watch her weight, and for some widows too much drinking is as serious a danger as overeating. She should accept invitations and return them in some suitable way. She should join clubs, not just to meet people but to find or follow up some real interest — in politics, painting, learning a new language, improving conditions in her city. She should consult the volunteer service bureau or service groups in her community and perhaps give some time to other people’s problems. She may find companionship in a self-help group composed of others who find themselves in the same position as herself. Perhaps attending and working for a church may give her a special kind of support. One way or another, she must shore up her days against the boredom and loneliness that beset those anxious women who spend their time wandering through department stores or joining one world cruise after another.
Widows whose husbands made some plans for their future protection seem emotionally stronger, and certainly they’re materially safer than women totally unprepared. I talked to a widow whose husband had spent the last year of his life quietly teaching his family to get along without him. He showed his twelve-year-old son how to put the garden to bed in autumn, put on storm windows, turn off the water system, rewire a faulty plug and unstop a blocked drain. He asked his wife to go through his files, make out their income tax returns and talk to their insurance agent. They discussed how the car worked and decided whether to get it repainted or buy a new one. She says now, “You have to have foreknowledge, and a special kind of husband.”
I came away from my research with the impression that widowhood is a country populated by bewildered women and impatient indulgent men —lawyers, brokers, insurance men, trust officers—trying vainly to communicate in two different languages. One trust-company executive kept interrupting his explanation of reasonably simple matters with an apologetic, “I don’t suppose you can follow this.” The woman who has the easiest time is the one who establishes contact with intelligent and congenial agents while her husband is alive, and makes it her business to understand every detail of her own affairs. It’s worth the effort, because no one cares as much about you or your children or your money as you do. ★