I recently wrote a blog post for my business entitled Women: What’s your score? It’s a discussion of the importance of Credit Scores (also known as Beacon scores in Canada) and why women in particular need to pay attention to them. Then one of life’s interesting coincidences occurred: I interviewed a woman whom I’ll call Deb who ran up against the very issue I had just written about following the shocking loss of her husband. Here is her story and her important advice for all of us.
Deb’s husband Matthew* was a healthy guy in his forties. When he complained about a bit of pain in his upper body, Deb didn’t think too much about it. Matt assumed it was something fairly obvious and simple, so he went to see a medical practitioner who thought it might be an infection but couldn’t really find anything. He gave Matt some Tylenol 3s and sent him home. Then Matt developed headaches that came and went. He went back to the specialist who again couldn’t find anything. More painkillers were prescribed.
Shortly afterwards, Matt developed an excruciating headache. This time he went to the Emergency Department of the local hospital. Matt told the doctor his story and the attending doctor chalked the pain up to an obvious source . He was sent home with morphine.
The situation got much worse: Matt began vomiting. Deb quickly called Emergency and spoke to the doctor. She was told that morphine can take a while to work and that it should kick in soon. When it was clear that the morphine was having no effect, a relative drove Matt back to Emergency where he was sent home after being given some anaesthetic.
Deb knew something was terribly wrong when Matt began to babble and hallucinate. She called the pharmacist to ask if this behaviour could be due to an overdose of morphine. She was told that the symptoms did not indicate an overdose.
Her next call was to 911 because Matt was in cardiac arrest. He was pronounced dead a short while later.
The coroner later discovered that Matt had an undetected medical issue. Ironically, statistics show that it is extremely rare to die from this type of issue.
It is hard to imagine the shock and the feelings that Deb experienced after losing her husband in this way. How was it possible that her healthy, 44-year-old husband was dead? So suddenly and so unexpectedly? The grief was overwhelming.
When I asked her what was the most difficult circumstance she faced after her loss, Deb replied, “The number of major decisions that need to be made right away when you are still in shock and you can barely function.”
On top of the emotional trauma she was experiencing, Deb soon discovered that she faced other, practical challenges. Thankfully Matt had a will and he had insurance so that bit was taken care of. However, Matt was also the one to take care of most of the bill payments and financial decisions. Deb now had to sort all of that out on her own.
Deb is educated, smart, professional and very capable. It’s not that the finances were beyond her abilities, it’s that she faced all of it so suddenly, on her own, at a time when her mental resources were fully taxed.
One of the first challenges to arise was the need to refinance her mortgage. Deb remembers sitting in the bank hearing her account manager talk to her about refinance details and all she could think was, “Can I afford the house on my own? Do I still have a roof over my head?”
In the early days of grieving it is nearly impossible to process information of any kind, let alone mortgage details. Deb was lucky to have a relative sit in with her at that meeting. He worked through the details with her afterwards as she struggled to make sense of everything.
At one point, the banker asked if Deb had a credit card. Yes absolutely. She pulled the card out of her wallet and handed it to the banker who promptly cut it up because it was a spousal card. The credit card was in Matt’s name; Deb’s card was an additional card which means the account wasn’t in her name. Interestingly, Matt’s card didn’t get cut up, just Deb’s. She would have to re-apply for a card of her own.
This is where the Credit score comes in. If Deb had not had a good score and also a good, stable job, she would have had difficulty in obtaining her own card. It ended up taking several weeks for Deb to receive her new credit card. Weeks! As she wryly notes, if she had been a student, companies would likely have thrown cards at her. But as a mature woman establishing her own credit, it took weeks. That can cause some difficulties if you have automatic payments set up through your cards or you’re used to paying for regular purchases like gas and groceries with credit cards. Of course it’s doable without them but it is a pain.
It has only been a couple of years since Matt’s death but despite this, Deb is doing amazingly well as she rebuilds her life and finds a new path without him. She has every reason to be bitter and angry, and yet she is warm, open and determined to remain focused on the positive.
Deb has learned many lessons throughout this whole experience. Here is what she wishes to pass on to all women:
1. Have a will. When you’re young you never expect death to knock at your door but it does. Ensure that both you and your partner/husband have an up-to-date will.
2. Participate in paying the bills. It’s important to know what’s going on in your family’s finances. It is so stressful and difficult to have to figure it out on your own afterwards. Do it right from the beginning and get involved.
3. Have you name on all of the assets! This is so important. If your name is on the house, the car and everything else you own, then it’s simple to transfer the asset to your name in case of your spouse’s death.
4. Have your own credit card, not a spousal card. You need to establish your own credit and have a card that you can keep in case of your spouse’s death.
5. Plan out guardianship for your children. Pick somebody or the state will pick for you. Have a plan in place. Your children are too important to let fear paralyze you into inaction.
*Not his real name