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If You Died Tomorrow...

From Gary North's Reality Check Newsletter #306

I don't know how many wives will read this report. Not enough, I suspect.

You may read it, but men rarely like to think about their own mortality. This is why so many of them die without leaving a will. So, I don't expect a lot of readers. Nevertheless. . . .


Because American women live longer than American men,and also because women tend to marry men who are older than they are, most American women will spend more than five years as widows.

As a rough estimate, a woman will live longer than her husband by the age discrepancy between them, plus three years. Of course, health issues are important. If she is in better physical shape than her husband was at her age, then her years of widowhood may be longer.

We should plan so our loved ones are not faced with extra stress at the time of our death.

My wife is likely to survive me by 15 years. She had a grandmother who made it into her nineties, and a great aunt who almost made it to age one hundred. Who is going to take care of her? Where will she get the money to pay for specialized medical care? She will outlive Medicare, I feel certain.

In 1999, the U.S. Census published a newsletter on the percentage of widows in each age group, age 55 and older. It reveals what we all suspect, but it does this so specifically that most women probably would be bothered by the data.

”For every 100 women aged 55 and older in 1999, there were only 81 men. This sex ratio dropped steadily with age, according to the March 1999 Current Population Survey (CPS). For the group aged 55 to 64, there were 92 men for every 100 women. But among people aged 85 and older, there were only 49 men for every 100 women.

”Women's longer life span is one reason why older women are more likely to be widowed than older men. Among the population aged 55 and older, 32 percent of women and only 9 percent of men were widowed in 1999. The likelihood that a woman was widowed rose rapidly with age: 13 percent for those aged 55 to 64, 41 percent for those aged 65 to 84, and 77 percent for women aged 85 and older.

”Men aged 55 and older were more likely than women that age to be married and living with their spouses in 1999. Among those aged 55 to 64, 77 percent of men and 64 percent of women were married. The gap widened among the older groups. Although 76 percent of men aged 65 to 84 were married, just 46 percent of women that age were.“

These statistics should motivate women to take specific steps to protect themselves in their old age. But most people act as though they will beat the odds. Like soldiers on a battlefield, they assume that the other guy will die, whether friend or foe. So, they ignore the statistical reality, beginning with the estimated future deficits of the Social Security/Medicare system.

Most women refuse to consider the economic effects on their lives of varying life expectancies, male vs. female. They are even more oblivious to the possibility of the statistically incalculable event of a husband's immediate death. For all those men who beat the odds, there are men who don't make it into the middle of the bell-shaped curve. These men tend to be shaped like that curve. If a man's circumference is more than 38 inches, he is a high-risk fellow.


Every wife should have a file folder or notebook with the following items: 1. Will/trust document 2. Investments/brokers 3. Life insurance documents 4. Husband's funeral/burial instructions 5. Plan of action to achieve #4

In addition, she should have her own personal savings account and other assets that she can live on while the paperwork, especially anything dealing with her husband's estate, goes through the state's probate court system.

If she owns her husband's life insurance policy, and she has paid the premiums with her own personal checking account -- not a joint account -- the insurance money will be available to her, tax-free, soon after the death certificate is sent to the insurance company.

If it's a large policy, the company may send out an annuity salesman to persuade her to buy an annuity instead of taking the cash. In an age of price inflation, annuities are bad investments: fixed annual returns. Annuities denominated in dollars are a bad idea. The widow should insist on immediate payment. She should buy a Swiss annuity if she wants an annuity.

Note: a wife who doesn't own the life insurance policy on her husband's life will find that his new wife is named as the beneficiary one week after their honeymoon is over. Any woman who allows her husband to own the life insurance policy in which she is named as the beneficiary is terminally naive.

A young wife should buy an annual renewable term policy on her husband's life. [Editor's Note: See up-dated info at end of article submitted by a reader in the insurance business] Legally, it must be renewed annually by the company, even if her husband develops a fatal illness. If she pays the annual premium, she gets coverage.

Ten-year level-premium policies are cheaper for wives older than age 40. These policies do not have to be renewed by the company after the expiration date. termonly.com COLD CALCULATIONS

Consider #5 on the list. Most women have no plan regarding what to do as soon as they discover the body. But every mortuary has a plan. The plan is to get the survivor to allow the mortuary pick up the body. From that point on, funeral negotiations favor the mortuary. Widows don't spend a lot of time on the phone doing price comparisons after the body is at a particular mortuary. "Possession is nine-tenths of the law!"

Legally, of course, the widow does not have to deal with the mortuary that picks up the body, but in fact, she will probably deal with that mortuary. The mortuaries know this.

So, she should shop early, before he dies. But she won't. That would be rational. Attitudes toward death are rarely rational.

Her children or the executor of the estate should shop after the body is discovered. Best of all, the deacons at the church should do the shopping. They are independent third parties who are not easy to manipulate. They can recommend low-cost funerals to all members, thereby making sharp bargaining acceptable socially. This is resented by funeral directors, who maximize their income by one-on-one bargaining with distraught widows.

The problem is, when a heart attack or some other unexpected event brings the death, there is not much time for shopping. The buyer is not in an emotional condition to negotiate. She assumes the good intentions of the seller. In the words of Steve Gillette's song, "Here's to the Rocky Road," That famous road that's paved with good intentions can only take you where you don't want to go. The seller's intentions are indeed good -- for the seller.

One of the advantages of dying in an auto accident as compared to death from a heart attack is that the corpse is likely to be taken directly to the morgue. This lets the survivors shop around. The morgue does not sell funerals.

This leads me to a conclusion: a widow should call the morgue first, not a funeral home. The body should be placed in cold storage at the morgue until negotiations with a funeral home are over.

The problem here is getting the body to the morgue. It is legal in most states to deliver it into a mini-van or an SUV, but a survivor is reticent to transport the body in his own vehicle. This is why funeral homes spend so much money on hearses. The most profitable economic function of a hearse is picking up the corpse at the deceased's door, not delivering it to the grave site.

The widow or her agent should be willing to call the coroner before calling a funeral home. Get the body legally to a storage facility that does not sell funerals. This will save the widow thousands of dollars.

I strongly recommend that everyone read Jessica Mitford's book, "The American Way of Death Revisited." This is an update of her 1963 classic expose of the funeral home industry -- and it is surely an industry, despite its non-profit legal status. I first read this book 40 years ago, when a fellow seminary student, who had worked for a Canadian funeral home, lent me his copy. He said it was accurate.

Better that the widow get the extra money that a funeral home is likely to extract from her if no one with bargaining skills acts as her representative.

A husband should research the final arrangements he prefers. He should plan for cost containment. If he outlines steps for a low-budget funeral, his wife will be less likely to be guilt-manipulated into parting with the money he laid up as her inheritance.


The cost of the casket is a major percentage of the funeral. Here is where price competition can come into play.

I prefer cremation. It's cheap. I surely don't want an open-casket funeral. I don't look like Brad Pitt now. I surely won't after an embalmer gets done with my excess baggage. I don't want anyone to pay for my embalming.

I hope my widow is smart enough to take off my wedding ring. Cremation makes this easy. Otherwise, she might have to chop off my finger, which would be OK with me. I bought the ring when gold was $35/oz. No use walking away from capital gains. If she keeps it as an heirloom, I hope whoever inherits it from her will have more sense. It could be traded for something useful, such as a .357 magnum. My Barry Goldwater/Buddy Holly glasses rims are collector items. I hope she knows this.

For those who want burial, I recommend that gentiles use Jewish caskets -- specifically an Orthodox (OPC) pine casket. (The body of my friend Greg Bahnsen, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church -- known as the OPC -- was buried in an OPC.) These are decent looking and priced not to last, which is the whole point, eschatologically speaking. abettercasket.com/jewish-caskets.htm. Also good are the caskets made by Trappist monks. I recommend the simple rectangular pine casket. trappistcaskets.com There are shipping costs, of course. Also, it takes time to get delivery. This is why the body should not be at the funeral home. There is less time pressure. The shorter the interval between death and the funeral, the more expensive the funeral is likely to be.

If churches would hand out a printed booklet with this information, members could get out of the cross-hairs of the funeral industry. There would be less guilt and more after-burial capital for widows. But this is a touchy subject, so churches evade their responsibility. They tell people how to live, not how to die. Result: widows are left without adequate defenses.


Fifteen years ago, I interviewed Charlotte Foehner [FEYner] for my FireStorm Chats tape series. She had just written her book, "The Widow's Handbook: A Guide for Living." It is a very good book and is still in print. She had been widowed young. She had little experience in managing money.

She told me that she recommended that a widow make no major financial decisions for a full year after the death of her husband. She recommends that the widow begin a serious study of investing. It is better to put the life insurance money in short-term, low-risk, low-return money markets or bank CD's than to make allocation decisions without good information. Spend a year getting this information.

The trouble is, a widow is unlikely to read her book immediately after the death of her husband. Her book should be read well in advance of widowhood. The problem is, people will pay for a cure but not prevention. The audience for the book is widows. There are no pre-widow handbooks.

There is a website with several books like hers, including hers. You can review the books and then get any of them through inter-library loan. Buy the books that you plan to mark up.

[Editor's Note: This book appears to be out-of-print now. Do a search for similar books.] Husbands and wives should read one of these books together and then begin making plans. Again, men don't want to think about their own mortality, and women don't like to think about a widow's vulnerability. So, nothing gets done until it's too late.

Churches should run seminars on this topic. They don't. Investment clubs should, too. They don't. So should service groups like the Rotary Club. As far as I know, they don't.


The leadership of Tri-City Covenant Church & Academy of Somersworth, New Hampshire has thought about these problems. Real estate is expensive there. The church was able to buy 30 acres adjacent to the existing property by selling burial plots at low prices to members. Another section of the land is being used for home sites. Income generated from the sale of places to live and places to be left behind has made it possible for the church to pay for acreage for a projected new high school and a new sanctuary.

This is strategic thinking. It is not common among pastors. It requires a concept of time that is inter-generational. "You're going to die. Get used to the idea. Plan ahead."

In American Protestantism, the denominations that have an inter-generational concept of time tend to be shrinking in membership. They have too many widows and not enough young families. The growing churches are filled with readers of the "Left Behind" novels. These people believe that Jesus is coming back momentarily to take all of His followers to heaven, where they will not die. They don't believe the slogan, "Nobody gets out of life alive." So, they don't make long-term plans except to sign long-term mortgages that they think they will not have to pay off. What they intend to leave behind is suckers, who will have to foreclose on properties in a newly glutted real estate market.

I have a friend who pastors a church in South Carolina. The church was built before 1800. It has a graveyard. Members can buy a plot for $100. You can imagine the demand at this price by non-members. The church places restrictions on the purchase of plots by non-members. When you don't allocate by price, you must allocate by standing in line.


Now is the time for wives to prepare for widowhood. Very few wives will do this. They expect someone to take care of them for free after their husbands die. They may say that this isn't what they expect, but their actions -- or inaction -- belies them. They refuse to pressure their husbands to face up to their masculine mortality and to take steps to protect them from actual reality. They do not buy books on planning for widowhood. They play the same game that their husbands do: "I'll think about it tomorrow."

Think about it today.

Reader's Comment:

Hi Glenn,

...I was just looking to update the info on the one year term insurance scenario. That product is not the one to purchase in today's day and age. It is the most expensive the longer you keep it. Good for the short term ( 1 to 5 yrs ). Certainly not recommended for anything longer. Also, because of divorce decrees, each spouse generally has to have life insurance to protect the kids. In certain cases some wives were able to purchase the insurance on their spouses to offset the alimony payments if the husband died too soon. All kinds of scenarios exist today with divorces as I'm sure your aware.

Anyway thank you for what you do in helping people like me understand the scriptures and applying it to everyday life. I really enjoy looking through the articles.

God Bless and have a great day,



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