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alone

Suddenly Alone—Where Can You Turn for Help?

Key Points
  • When you lose a loved one, it's important to reach out for help and support.

  • Even though it's difficult, you need to deal with practical issues such as Social Security and Medicare benefits.

  • There are a number of national and local agencies specifically designed to help seniors with practical, financial and legal matters.

Dear Carrie:

My husband died recently, and it’s just me now. Who will look out for me if I have issues with Medicare or Social Security?

A Reader

Dear Reader,

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

At this time, it's really important to reach out to friends, family and trusted advisors. Don't be afraid to ask for help—and don't let yourself become isolated. There are also lots of community services available if you know where to look for them. For my part, I can provide a few insights and point you toward some resources.

Applying for Social Security survivors benefits

As a widow, if you're at full retirement age as defined by the Social Security Administration (SSA), you qualify for 100% of your husband's benefits. (For those born between 1943 and 1954, full retirement age is 66.) If you're younger, benefits are graduated by age and work status. Of course, if your own benefit is higher, you should take that.

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. You can find specifics on how to apply at ssa.gov. However you can't apply for survivors benefits online. You must either call 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 would contact the Social Security Administration either online at ssa.gov or at the same phone number listed above: 800-772-1213.
  • For questions about covered medical services, choosing a Medicare part D drug plan or finding a local doctor or hospital that accepts Medicare patients, you would contact the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (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 seniors 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 to eldercare.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 800-677-1116.

There are a number of other websites dedicated to senior care issues, such as the Administration on Aging and the Family Caregiver Alliance. Both provide online tools for finding local resources and support services, as well as information on government health and disability programs, legal resources and more.

I don't know what your living arrangements are, but if you're in a position to consider an active adult/senior community, this might make sense. These retirement-oriented communities offer access to a wide variety of resources from job counseling to legal services.

Speaking of legal services, another option is to find an attorney who specializes in senior 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. 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 it 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 needs and assess your current situation and goals as you look ahead.

The key is to stay active and involved, reach out, and in some ways be your own advocate. By doing so, you may find that you have more of a 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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Important Disclosures

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The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager. 

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