Losing a spouse is a traumatic, emotional experience, but sadly, it’s one that married couples need to plan for. And unfortunately, there are financial implications in addition to the emotional impact—and according to a survey by the Society of Actuaries, most people do not comprehend the financial magnitude of such a loss.

A spouse’s death always means a reduction in Social Security benefits, as only the larger of the two benefits will be paid out to the surviving spouse. And that spouse may not have financial knowledge, or may no longer have the ability to manage finances. A sobering statistic: Four percent of elderly couples live in poverty, but 15 percent of elderly widows do. And women from the baby boom generation could be widows for as long as 20 years.

But how can you plan for such an event? To begin with, make your retirement plan together. As difficult as it may be, include the inevitable loss of you or your spouse, so you can plan to cover income needs for the survivor. You may find that your expected retirement withdrawals change based on future needs. If one of you isn’t comfortable with finances, the plan should address that, too: You may need to include the services of an accountant or financial advisor in your future expenses.

Your plan should also include estate planning. A few tips:

  • Make sure your wills and any trusts or beneficiary designations have been properly completed to protect the surviving spouse.
  • If you’re fortunate enough to have a pension plan, you may want to choose the survivor option, which allows the surviving spouse to continue receiving benefits after the pensioner’s death.
  • When making decisions about Social Security, figure out how to maximize survivor benefits.
  • If it appears that the loss of a spouse will cause financial hardship for the survivor, consider purchasing life insurance.

Finally, I strongly suggest you consider long-term care insurance. Remember, whoever survives won’t have a spouse who can help out.

The loss of a spouse is devastating. By planning for the financial impact, you can take away one burden from the survivor.