Ministry Resources

The Life of the Widow – Part 4: Legal & Financial

Author: Charles Harris

Attendance to legal and financial matters in the family is of the utmost importance in view of the possibility of the unexpected death of the head of a household.

Wesley Teterud writes, “Since death strikes individuals regardless of age or status in life, and men statistically die before women, it is critical for husbands to seriously prepare their wives for their inevitable destiny of widowhood” (Wesley M. Teterud, Caring for Widows: Your Church Can Make a Difference [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994], p.71).

It is an astounding reality, though, that few couples give much thought to that part of life. Catherine Marshall (wife of the noted Senate Chaplain Peter) disliked the thought of discussing death with her husband during their lives together. Once he insisted that she must write down some things she needed to know just in case something happened to him. She reports that she was almost defiant. Her response to his request was, “I’ll put this stuff down to humor you; but I can’t stand to hear you talk that way. Nothing is going to happen to you. Don’t be foolish” (Catherine Marshall, To Live Again [New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1957], p. 24).

In sharp contrast to this example, a couple of close friends of mine discussed their affairs in every detail and made plans for the wife’s future in the event of his sudden death. They knew he had a heart condition that could end his life at any moment. Wisely, they went over every item of their legal and financial affairs. That included insurance, savings, investments, property holdings, and burial arrangements. Time demonstrated the correctness of their conduct. One snowy morning on his way to work his life ended at the wheel of his automobile while he was still on a narrow street in their neighborhood. Because of their carefulness in planning ahead, she experienced no difficulties whatsoever in continuing to direct her legal and financial affairs following her husband’s death.

The following discussion offers general guidelines concerning both legal considerations and financial matters in family life. Its legal aspects focus on wills and trusts. Financial observations draw attention to the often radical economic changes which come suddenly with widowhood. The article focuses on the budget as calculated after tithes and taxes. It also alerts the widow as to the possibility of being duped by swindlers. Finally, it pinpoints some problems associated with credit buying.

Legal Considerations

All can testify from their own experience that human nature seeks to push thoughts and discussion of death as far back as possible to the rear of the mind. Accordingly, Teterud reports, “Half the people in the United States who die leave no wills” (p. 72). He goes on to explain why that neglect is such a serious matter for couples. He says that in that case, “State law determines how their possessions are to be parceled out” (p. 72). However, something more important than financial holdings is involved. Teterud observes further, “If something happened where both my wife and I died, our children’s future would be decided by the courts of our land because of the absence of a will” (p. 72).

Catherine Marshall reports her husband did not leave a will when he died. However, she says she learned that he was not alone, especially among those with small to modest estates. She writes, “I learned later that an estimated 70 per cent of American property owners die intestate” (with no will) (p. 82). To her dismay, she found that since the two did not have a joint bank account, she could not draw from his, even to pay funeral expenses, or to take care of any immediate needs. As her husband’s insurance polices were in a safety deposit box in the bank, they were also sealed.

Further, it was only then that Marshall learned that in the District of Columbia, when a head of a household dies without a will, his wife receives one third and his children (or in her case, child) received two thirds. Indicating the differences in state laws, Teterud writes, “Some couples assume that the wife automatically inherits all of husband’s property even if there is no will. In some states this assumption is true only in the case of married persons having no children. Where children are involved, the surviving spouse gets one-half of the property, and the children equally share in the other half” (p. 73).

In somewhat of a similar manner, he reports further that in biblical times “. . . a Jewish wife did not inherit her husband’s possessions. Even in ancient Israel, the oldest male child was recognized as the head of each family after the father died. The widow under this economy was left with only the possessions she had brought into the marriage: her personal dowry and marriage gifts” (p. 2).

It was even necessary for Mrs. Marshall to appear in court and be named the administratrix of her husband’s estate and guardian of her son, necessitating the posting of a sizable bond. That involved the appraisal of items of value among his possessions, such as a stamp collection and even sermon notes! She explains that under those conditions, “Everything thereafter came under the jurisdiction of this court. Not even funeral expenses, doctor or hospital bills, nor ordinary household expenses could be paid until the court passed on them” (p. 82).

It is obvious, then, that without prior legal arrangements before the death of a husband, everything immediately falls under the jurisdiction of the probate court. James Peterson and Michael Briley define the function of that court as they write, “A probate simply means a legal procedure in which a court distributes the proceeds from an estate” (James A. Peterson and Michael L. Briley, Widows and Widowhood: A Creative Approach to Being Alone [New York: Association Press, 1977], p. 198).

Even when one leaves a will, processing it through such a legal procedure most likely entails the restriction of access to the estate on the part of the heirs for at least one year. Discussing the inadequacy of leaving only a simple will, Peterson and Briley explain further, “The disadvantages are that the administration costs and the fees for attorneys and executor gobble up a great deal of money” (p. 199). Such can be avoided by living trusts, life insurance, joint tenancy of property and other assets, token trusts, and lifetime gifts.

A few lines in an article such as this by no means provide adequate legal counsel. They serve rather to suggest the seeking of such advice. Long before death visits their home, a couple should consult a lawyer about establishing a revocable trust. A part of that usually includes assigning power of attorney to a survivor.  Another part includes granting authority for decisions in keeping with one’s wishes as to what, if any, conditions under which one wishes his or her life continued with life supporting systems.

An advantage is avoiding estate taxes as well as not having to go through probate court with large lawyer fees and other problems. Teterud says, “I have personally worked with widows who have had to endure the probate process for over a year” (p. 76). I too remember speaking with a farmer who said that his lack of arrangements were such that at his wife’s death he could not even get money from his bank account to pay for her funeral.

Financial Matters

Abundant evidence exists to stress the need for attention to money matters before the death of a spouse. Unexpected or otherwise. For example, Teterud writes, “A woman’s income level automatically drops by 40 percent when she loses the financial support of her late husband” (p. 52). Writing specifically to widows, Mirian Nye observes, “Having to shift down in spending is harder than shifting up. But you will have lots of company as you strive to line up income and expenses evenly” (Mirian Baker Nye, But I Never Thought He’d Die: Practical Help for Widows [Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1978], p. 90).

It seems that not a lot has changed through the years or from culture to culture as far as the widow and her finances are concerned. Bonnie Thurston explains that the Greek word for widow, chera, suggested one who was “left empty,” “left without,” and especially one void of financial support. She declares, “This was almost uniformly the case in the ancient world” (Bonnie Bowman Thurston, The Widows: A Women’s Ministry in the Early Church [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989], p. 10). Further, she writes that a young widow was expected to remarry. However, “If marriage was not possible, the widow was entitled to maintenance on the interest from her dowry. If she did remarry, her property was separated from her late husband’s. His property went to the children” (p.11).

Concerning the confrontation about money matters that comes immediately with widowhood, Peterson and Briley declare, “The suddenness of the new responsibilities can be as chilling as a frigid wind off an Arctic ice flow” (p. 184). They suggest that with the experience come “fear, anxiety, worry, shame, and a loss of self esteem” (p. 192). Joyce Brothers shares her experiences on the subject as she writes, “I worried about every aspect of my financial situation. I worried because I learned that the old saying ‘Two can live as cheaply as one’ was truer than I thought. Or, to put it another way, I learned that it costs almost as much for one to live as for two” (p. 115).

Marshall says soon after the sudden death of her husband she reasoned, “What does the new life hold? You are not ready to live without him. You are not trained to earn a living. How are you going to be alone?” (p. 17). She declared further, “I had never once figured out an income tax blank, had a car inspected, consulted a lawyer, or tried to read an insurance policy. My checking account rarely balanced. I had never invested any money; I had been driving a car for only three months” (p. 25).

In view of all of this, Nye has an encouraging word for widows who are fearful when it comes to handling their finances for the first time since their marriage. She writes, “But bankers, lawyers, brokers, and others in the business world point out that when women rid themselves of the idea that they cannot understand money matters, they often become good budgeters, good planners, and good investors” (p. 86).

Income Changes

For older couples, a husband’s pension payments often end at his death. There is the threat of Social Security benefits being decreased or ending altogether at the time of a husband’s death. The survivors’ benefits of the program come into effect if he leaves behind either minor children or a widow whose advanced age qualifies her to receive her share of what he was receiving. Nye writes, “If you are under sixty and caring for the child or children of your husband, who was a worker covered under social security, you will be eligible to receive payments until the youngest child is eighteen” (p. 88). Some benefits may continue until his offspring have reached age twenty-two, provided they are full-time college students.


Teterud says, “. . . some widows are vulnerable to swindlers, gimmicks, and other negative influences designed to take advantage of them” (p. 7). It seems that such evils have been a part of the history of man from the beginning. They offer dramatic proof of the existence of fallen human nature. Even in his day, Isaiah found reason to condemn the leaders of Israel for their lack of justice in the treatment of widows. He declares, “Your rulers are rebels, companions of thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them” (Isaiah 1:23).

Certain provisions of the law stand equally condemned by the prophet. To legislators Isaiah says, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless” (10:1-2).

As a way of avoiding being taken advantage of in business matters, Nye observes, “Some widows take a father, brother-in-law, or trusted friend to accompany them when they buy a car, a house, or a large appliance. They feel that such support strengthens their resolution not to be influenced by high-pressure sales tactics” (p. 90). Some widows may even need to resist pressures of close relatives in the area of finances. For example, adult children may engage in arm-twisting tactics in efforts to get a widowed mother to loan them money. Oftentimes this occurs under shaky circumstances.

In financial affairs, a practice which helps is the rule of thumb. The rule of thumb states that one should seek three bids on anything where the cost is over $100. Even after receiving a single bid, a widow is wise to postpone a decision by declaring, “I’ll need to talk this over with my brother, or father” (even if they are not readily available for consultation!). Expressing her opinion, Nye writes, “It has been suggested that there ought to be a law invalidating all business transactions made by a widow for six months after the husband’s death—unless cosigned by a lawyer!” (p. 90). Peterson and Briley offer wise counsel when they say, “No one ought to make decisions that will basically determine the next twenty years until the emotional backwash of loss is over and one can consider the future without undue pressure from the past” (p. 18).


Families experiencing financial difficulties often find that preparing a budget as a guideline helps considerably. The widow who has depended on her husband to keep all monetary records may soon discover the need for such an instrument. Simply defined, a budget is a document which lists anticipated income and expected expenses. The aim of preparing one is to control spending so that it does not exceed earnings.

Tithes and Offerings

Since they are such fixed items, a family may subtract tithes and taxes before actual budgetary calculations. By definition, a tithe is ten percent of one’s income. The believer understands that one-tenth of his income belongs to the Lord. Of course, a person operating a business generally determines his tithe on the basis of his net income rather than on gross receipts. No one who loves the Lord attempts to deny God what belongs to Him. To do so puts him in the category of those addressed by Jehovah when He asked, “Will a man rob God?” “Yet you rob me.” “But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’” “In tithes and offerings” (Malachi 3:8).

Tithing was in the heart of the worshipers of Jehovah before it became a matter of law. Abraham paid tithes to Melchezedic (Genesis 14:18-20). Jacob vowed to tithe in gratitude for a safe return to his homeland (Genesis 38:20-22). It is the most equitable way to finance the work of the Lord on earth. Each gives the same percentage of his income, whether large or small.

Many add offerings to their tithes in worshipful giving. Paul speaks of such voluntary contributions in a letter to the Corinthians. His guidelines for such giving include the fact that one present offerings “according to his ability,” “as he determines in his own heart,” as “liberally” as possible, and with a “cheerful attitude” (2 Corinthians 8:3; 9:6-7). A truth in all of this is that an individual’s attitude toward money is a fundamental test of his spiritual commitment.


Scripture shows that officials of government are servants of the Lord charged with keeping law and order on earth. Concerning an officer of the state, Paul told the Romans, “He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). As such he is worthy of financial support. Accordingly, the apostle said, “This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing” (6). In today’s world, some of a believer’s taxes also go to support widows, orphans, the disabled, and needy senior citizens. He should, then, pay his taxes with an attitude of worship to God. Of course, before the development of the welfare state, he could have contributed more directly to the support of such people through his church.

The Budget

After tithes and taxes, then, there are a few general guidelines for the family budget. One of the biggest is the fact that about twenty-five percent goes for food items. If one’s income comes in the form of a monthly check, including Social Security of welfare assistance, he or she should avoid the temptation to spend it all at the beginning of the month. They don’t want to be left with nothing for the rest of the month. She should also beware of the tendency to buy steaks and candy instead of hamburger and other staples.

Other budget items include about thirty percent for housing expenses. Clothing should average around ten percent of the budget. Medical costs will total about the same amount. Automobile costs require around fifteen percent. Some families spend more. Often it is wiser to continue to drive an older, dependable car rather than to trade for a newer one too frequently. Without care, about all some will ever own in life is an automobile.

Insurance costs may total about five percent of the budget. Ideally this includes life insurance. John Banker says there are three basic kinds of insurance (John C. Banker, Personal Finances for Ministers [Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1973], pp. 66-69). With “term” insurance, one is covered only as long as he continues making payments. He collects nothing until the hour of death. Benefits for “ordinary life” coverage include insurance plus a form of savings. The policy builds cash value. Again, though, he pays premiums as long as he lives. “Endowment” insurance also provides an insurance and savings plan. However, after a stipulated period of time, such as twenty years, premiums cease and one has a “paid up” policy. His estate collects the insurance coverage provided plus the cash value that has accumulated through the years. That cash value is sometimes calculated as a part of what the face value of the policy pays.

Banker advises the head of a house to buy term insurance with its lower premiums initially so as to provide the greatest protection for their families for the limited amount they can set aside for that purpose (p. 69). The counsel of Pierce for such persons is that they “. . . should be able to lower the amount of term insurance when they leave their forties since the retirement account and other investments will have elevated their net worth” (T. Burton. Pierce, Ministerial Ethics: A Guide for Spirit-Filled Leaders [Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 1996], p. 212). If at all possible, an insurance policy for the head of a household should equal to at least two or three years’ salary.

When it comes to health insurance, the cost can sometimes seem unaffordable. The reality is, of course, that one cannot afford to be without at least catastrophic health coverage. Where it is available, group insurance offers the most coverage for the least premiums. Basic to health insurance is the coverage Social Security provides through Medicare, though that is not available until later in life. Even with that, though, some form of supplemental coverage is almost a necessity.

An important item in the budget concerns savings. Perhaps at least five percent of the total budgeted should be devoted to savings. Ideally, a savings account just to cover emergencies should equal four months salary. Here though, as in all of the suggestions above, the percentages are estimates. They will certainly vary with different families.

A final note is that one should consider children in budgetary planning. Each one should be given an appropriate allowance to discourage stealing and teach responsibility in handling money. They also need to be schooled in the principles of tithing from the beginning of life. My parents taught me to tithe very early in life. For that reason I have found it easy to worship the Lord through giving. In doing so I have learned that, indeed, as Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Credit Buying

Interestingly, the great London pastor, Spurgeon, thought that to buy on credit equals stealing. The noted missionary to China, Hudson Taylor, held similar views. However, the Law of Moses made provisions for the securing and granting of loans in the economy of Israel. Obviously, the world of today operates very much with financial arrangements based on a credit economy. Even so, a wise individual limits credit purchases to the larger items such as a house or an automobile. He certainly should avoid buying things like groceries on the credit.

Personally, I carry only one major credit card, and I use it sparingly. It serves me well when the troubles of life come. Whether I am faced with unexpected expenditures, don’t have the cash needed in hand, don’t have a checkbook with me, or I am in a place where the business will not accept any personal checks, I have that card with me. Whatever the case, I always pay the credit card bill within the limited thirty-day period. That way, I never pay any interest on items purchased with it. If one makes a habit of buying things “on sale” without using a credit card, he saves the 12-18 percent interest of the credit card, plus the 25-33 percent less with the sale price, for a total saving of as much as 50 percent.


The discussion above has offered general guidelines concerning both legal considerations and financial matters in family life. Its legal aspects have focused on wills and trusts. Financial observations have drawn attention to the often radical changes which come suddenly with widowhood. The article has included a focus on the budget as calculated after tithes and taxes. It has also alerted the widow as to the possibility of being duped by swindlers. Finally, it has pinpointed some problems associated with credit buying.


WORKS CITED Banker, John C. Personal Finances for Ministers. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1973. Marshall, Catherine. To Live Again. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1957. Nye, Mirian Baker. But I Never Thought He’d Die: Practical Help for Widows. Phhiladelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1978. Peterson, James A., and Michael L. Briley. Widows and Widowhood: A Creative Approach to Being Alone. New York: Association Press, 1977. Pierce, T. Burton. Ministerial Ethics: A Guide for Spirit-Filled Leaders [Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 1996. Teterud, Wesley M. Caring for Widows: Your Church Can Make a Difference. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994. Thurston, Bonnie Bowman. The Widows: A Women’s Ministry in the Early Church. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989.

What's Next

We would love to answer any question you have or help suggest next steps on your journey.