Suddenly Alone—Where Can You Turn for Help?

June 29, 2022 Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz
It's hard to focus on finances after losing a spouse. But there are resources to turn to for help and support.

Dear Carrie,

My husband died recently and I'm now on my own at age 78. I'm not used to dealing with things like Medicare and Social Security. Where can I go for help if I have issues?

—A Reader

Dear Reader,

When you experience the death of a loved one, everything else pales in significance. But as your question implies, you still need to deal with the practical and financial issues in life, which can be a lot more difficult when facing them alone.

At this time, it's really important to reach out to trusted friends, family and advisors. Don't be afraid to ask for help—and don't let yourself become isolated. There are also community services available if you know where to look for them. At the same time, be aware that older adults in your situation are often the target of financial fraudsters who see you as particularly vulnerable. Don't be fearful, just be cautious. Here are some resources to help you get started.

Applying for Social Security survivors' benefits

As a widow or widower, you qualify for 100% of your husband's benefits at what the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers your "full retirement age." For those born between 1943 and 1954, your FRA is 66. (FRA gradually increases by a few months for every birth year, until it reaches 67 for people born in 1960 and later.) For the record, younger spouses can file for Social Security survivor benefits as early as age 60 (or age 50 if they have a disability), but their benefit will be reduced. If you have your own work record, you would effectively keep the "higher" of your Social Security benefit or your spouse's Social Security benefit, but not both.

The SSA can give you detailed information on what you need to provide to get your husband's benefits (e.g., a death certificate, your marriage certificate, and Social Security numbers for both of you) and will work with you to assure you receive the maximum you're entitled to including a lump-sum death payment of $255. You can find specifics on how to apply at ssa.gov. However you can't apply for survivors benefits online. You must either call 1-800-772-1213 or contact your local Social Security office.

Contacting Medicare

Generally, you're eligible for Medicare if you or your husband worked for at least 10 years in Medicare-covered employment, you're 65 or older and a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. If you have questions, there are two primary sources of information:

  • If you're already enrolled in Medicare, your benefits should remain the same. However, if you haven't yet enrolled, have questions about eligibility or you want to apply for the Extra Help benefit available under the prescription drug program, you should contact the Social Security Administration either online at ssa.gov or at the same phone number listed above: 1-800-772-1213.
  • For questions about covered medical services, Medicare part D drug plans, choosing between Original Medicare or Medicare Advantage, or finding a local doctor or hospital that accepts Medicare patients, contact the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (1-800-633-4227 or medicare.gov).

Finding someone to help you

Dealing with these issues—especially at a time like this—can seem a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, there are organizations that can help you.

One good place to start could be the Area Agencies on Aging. These agencies are dedicated to helping older adults get assistance with healthcare, homecare, transportation and more. Many offer specific help with Medicare and Medicaid issues and provide volunteer counselors and community education programs.

To find out what's offered in your community, you can go to n4a.org or eldercare.acl.gov, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Either website will take you to the Eldercare Locator that can direct you to specific programs in your area. You can also call 1-800-677-1116.

There are a number of other websites dedicated to issues for older Americans such as the National Council on Aging and the Medicare Rights Center that provide online tools for finding local resources and support services, as well as information on government health and disability programs, legal resources and more.

Speaking of legal services, another option is to find an attorney who specializes in older adult issues and understands how to navigate through the maze of government agencies. This may be more costly—and you want to make sure you get an attorney who is highly recommended. An attorney can also help you review and update your estate planning documents including wills, powers of attorney, medical directives and trust documents. The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys has an online locator that can provide a starting point for finding a qualified attorney in your area.

Moving forward with your financial life

I know it's not easy, but it's very important that you now take a close look at your new financial reality. You don't have to do it alone. Discuss your situation, concerns and goals with your family or look for a financial advisor if you don't already have one. Talk about how your lifestyle may change. Go over your saving and spending, and assess your current situation and future needs.

The key is to stay active and involved, reach out, and as much as possible act as your own advocate. By doing so, you may find a more powerful support system than you imagined—one that can help you move forward with confidence.

Have a personal finance question? Email us at askcarrie@schwab.com. Carrie cannot respond to questions directly, but your topic may be considered for a future article. For Schwab account questions and general inquiries, contact Schwab.

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