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Widowhood is a very common experience in the United States today, as it is and has been in other times and places. Marriages can end in only two ways: divorce and widowhood. While divorce has become much more frequent in our society in the past several decades, widowhood is still the most likely way for marriages to end among older persons, and the most common marital status among the very old. To understand the lives of older persons, an understanding of widowhood and its implications is essential.

The demography of widowhood

In the United States in 1998, there were nearly 13,600,000 widowed persons (U.S. Bureau of the Census web site). Widows and widowers represent almost seven percent of the American population aged 18 and older (although approximately 5,000 widowed persons are under age 18). But widowhood is highly age-linked, of course; virtually one-third (actually 32.5 percent) of the population age sixty-five and older consists of widowed persons. And this estimate is at a single point in time, meaning that a relatively small number of widowed persons who have remarried, and a much larger number of persons who are currently married but will be widowed in the future, are not counted as widowed. Widowhood is a very common experience in the life cycle of contemporary Americans, as it is in other societies as well.

Widowhood is strongly connected to gender. In 1998, the latest year for which data are currently available, 2.7 percent of all men aged 18 and older, and 14.9 percent of all men age sixty-five and older and were widowed. For women, 10.8 percent of those 18 and over and 45.2 percent of those sixty-five and over were widowed. The percentage widowed rises dramatically with age for both sexes, but there is a remarkable sex difference even among the oldest: 42.0 percent of men 85 and over, and 77.4 percent of women in that age category, were widowed as of 1998 (U.S. Bureau of the Census web site).

Women are more likely than men to be widowed for two reasons. First, women live longer than men. As of 1997, life expectancies at birth were 73.6 years for men and 79.4 years for women. At age 65, men could expect another 15.9 years of life on the average, while women lived an average of 19.2 more years (Anderson, 1999). In addition, women tend to marry older men, although this gap has been narrowing. In 1998 median ages at first marriage were 26.7 years for men and 25.0 for women, for an average difference of 1.7 years. But fifty years ago, at a time when many of todays widowed persons were marrying, median ages at marriage were much lower and the sex difference was greater. In 1950 men married at an average (median) age of 22.8, and women at 20.3, reflecting an average difference of 2.5 years. Because women live longer and marry older men, their odds of being widowed are much greater than mens.

The sex difference in the probability of widowhood is the primary factor driving the difference in the number of older men and women who are unmarried. In 1998 there were 3,363,000 unmarried men age sixty-five and older; at the same time there were 10,581,000 unmarried older women (U.S. Bureau of the Census web site). This greatly influences the probability of remarriage for widowed persons. While rates of remarriage are much lower among the widowed than the divorced, remarriage rates are much higher among older widowers (about 14 per 1000 per year) than widows (approximately 2 per 1000 per year)(U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). Remarriage rates are lower for women in large part because there are so few available men in the appropriate age ranges. This is exacerbated by the fact that older widowed men who remarry frequently marry younger women, while marriages of older women to younger men are much less common. Nonetheless, remarriage is uncommon among widowed persons, particularly when they are widowed late in life.

For several decades the proportion of our elderly population living alone has been increasing, especially among the oldest old (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). This change has been driven largely by widowed persons. In 1998 about 17 percent of older men and 41 percent of older women lived alone. This sex difference, however, is due almost entirely to the sex difference in the probability of widowhood; most older men (72.6 percent) are married and living with their spouses, while only 40.7 percent of older women are similarly situated. Among the widowed, men and women are almost equally likely to live with other family members (25.6 percent and 28.1 percent respectively) or alone (66.6 percent and 70.1 percent, respectively)(U.S. Bureau of the Census web site). Men are more likely than women to live with nonrelatives.

The probability of widowhood varies substantially by many factors other than sex. Widowhood is considerably more common among blacks than whites in the contemporary United States. As of 1998, 14.1 percent of white males and 44.5 percent of white females age sixty-five or older were widowed. For blacks the comparable percentages were 24.7 percent and 54.4 percent for men and women, respectively. This is true in spite of the fact that blacks are also more likely than whites to be both never-married and divorced. In consequence, many fewer elderly blacks than whites are married. Less than one-quarter (24.3 percent) of elderly black women are married, compared to 44.5 percent of elderly white women.

While widowhood is a common, and indeed statistically normal, experience for older persons and especially older women, a slightly smaller proportion of our elderly population is widowed today than was the case several decades ago. As noted above, in 1998 14.9 percent of all men and 45.2 percent of all women age sixty-five and over were widows. In 1960 the comparable percentages were 18.8 percent for men and 52.9 percent for women. The decrease in the proportion of the elderly population that is widowed is attributable to two factors: (1) increasing life expectancies, meaning that more people enter old age with their marriages still intact; and (2) the increasing prevalence of divorce. Since 1960 the percentages of older people who are divorced have increased from 1.6 percent for men and 1.5 percent for women to 6.3 percent for men and 6.7 percent for women (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1996). The Census Bureau predicts that the proportion of the elderly population that is widowed will continue to decrease for these reasons, reaching 13.4 percent for men and 36.9 percent for women by 2050.

The consequences of widowhood

Many of the critical issues surrounding widowhood have to do with its consequences, particularly in regard to health and mortality, psychological well-being, and social relations.

Most studies find that widowhood elevates the risk of mortality. Widowed persons also report more physical health problems than do comparable married persons. Prigerson and colleagues (2000) found that the number of chronic conditions, nursing-home days, physician visits, and health care costs increased more among widowed persons than among married persons.

Not surprisingly, widowed persons have been found to score lower on measures of psychological well-beingand higher on measures of depression, loneliness, and anxietythan married persons. However, many of these studies have found the adverse effects of widowhood on psychological well-being to be relatively small. This contradicts the common assumption that widowhood tends to be quite devastating psychologically.

Widowhood appears to be a crisis to which most people eventually adjust, and the negative effects on psychological well-being generally diminish with time. Some studies (e.g., Mendes de Leon et al., 1994) report that levels of depression, for example, return to prewidowhood levels in as little as a year after bereavement. But other studies (e.g., Lee et al., 1998; Wortman and Silver, 1990), primarily cross-sectional studies (that is, those that compare widowed people with married people at a single point in time), find widowed persons to be more depressed than married persons many years after widowhood.

Some of this discrepancy between studies may be due to the nature and timing of their comparisons. Lichtenstein and associates (1996) studied a sample of twins from Sweden. In each pair of twins, one had been widowed and the other was still married. The sample was followed over a nine-year period. Individuals who were widowed during the course of the study showed elevated levels of depression prior to widowhood, perhaps in response to their spouses illness and the disruption in their lives caused by the illness. So a return to the pre-widowhood level of depression meant that widowed persons were still more depressed than their married twins. Although depression scores improved with time among the widowed, the researchers found that even those who had been widowed for extended periods of time (prior to the inception of the study) were more depressed (and more lonely and less satisfied with their lives) than their married twins on average.

The consensus that seems to be emerging is that, while widowhood is quite devastating psychologically in the short run for most people, over time most people adjust reasonably well. In some cases widowhood offers relief from caring for an ill or disabled spouse and allows the widower or widow to reorganize his or her life around other activities.

There has been considerable controversy as to whether widowhood is a more difficult experience psychologically for men or for women. Widowhood is generally a greater problem financially for women than men, and economic difficulties can lead to lower psychological well-being. Several studies (e.g., Schuster and Butler, 1989; Thompson, et al., 1989) have indeed found that widowhood has a greater adverse impact on the psychological well-being of women. Other studies, however (e.g., Lee, et al., 1998, 2001; Umberson et al., 1992) have reported stronger effects on men. The weight of the evidence at this point seems to favor the argument that widowhood is more difficult for men.

In cross-sectional studies such as those noted above, some of the apparent advantage in psychological well-being that widowed women have over widowed men is illusory. Men are more likely to remarry than women, which probably removes the least depressed men from the population of widowed persons, thereby decreasing the average of those remaining. In addition, because of their higher mortality rate (as well as their higher remarriage rates) widowed men are generally widowed for shorter periods of time than women, giving them less time to adjust.

On the other hand, widowhood has a stronger negative effect on the health of men than that of women, and poor health impacts psychological well-being. In addition, there is some evidence (e.g., Lee et al., 2001; Umberson et al., 1992) that widowed men find housework to be more daunting. Their dislike of housework, combined with the necessity of doing it, is associated with greater depression.

But widowhood is also more depressing for men because married men are the least depressed of any sex/marital status group. Some studies (e.g., Lee et al., 1998, 2001) indicate that men are more advantaged by marriage than women in terms of psychological well-being, making marriage a greater barrier against depression for men than for women. The end of a marriage, therefore, has greater negative psychological consequences for men than for women. Lee et al. (2001) found that widowed men were no more depressed than widowed women, but, because married men were less depressed than married women, the difference between married and widowed men was larger than the difference between married and widowed women.

Somewhat paradoxically, men may be disadvantaged in the process of adjusting to widowhood because it is relatively uncommon among them. As noted above, most widowed persons are women because wives are much more likely to outlive their husbands than to predecease them. The larger number of widowed women than widowed men allows men a greater opportunity for remarriage, and they take advantage of this to some extent. However, this also means that they have fewer opportunities to form friendships with men in similar positions, and there are fewer male role models for successful adaptation to widowhood. It is also likely that few men expect to outlive their wives and when they do they have not prepared for it psychologically or socially.

Many studies (e.g., Bradsher, 1997) show that a strong and active support network of family and friends is important in helping widowed persons adjust to their situation. It is frequently the case that widowed parents move in with children, particularly if their own health is failing. Among persons in their seventies and above, widowed people are much more likely than married couples to live with children, although most widowed persons do live alone. Roan and Raley (1996) showed, based on a longitudinal study that followed people for five years, that adults whose mothers were widowed increased their frequency of visits, telephone calls, and letters to their mothers. However, it is possible that increased contacts by children with widowed parents occur primarily in the first few years after widowhood; comparisons of the long-term widowed with married people show few differences in this area.

Another very important issue for widowed persons is the question of who provides care when they become ill or infirm. The evidence is clear that children are the primary source of care for older persons without spouses. Daughters are much more likely to provide care to widowed parents than are sons, but this is largely due to the fact that most widowed parents in need of care are mothers. Widowed mothers are cared for overwhelmingly by daughters while widowed fathers who require care receive it about equally from sons and daughters. Those without children may receive care from friends, neighbors, or relatives, but are also more likely to be institutionalized.

Widowhood is, and has been, a statistically normal part of the life cycle, particularly for women. It is not a happy event, and there are many adverse consequences in terms of both physical and psychological health, including an elevated risk of mortality (especially for men). However, most widows and widowers appear to adjust successfully in the long run.

Gary R. Lee

See also Bereavement; Kin; Marital Relationships; Marriage and Remarriage; Widowhood: Economic Issues.


Bradsher, J. E. Older Women and Widowhood. In Handbook on Women and Aging. Edited by Jean M. Coyle. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Pages 418429.

Lee, G. R.; DeMaris, A.; Bavin, S.; and Sullivan, R. Gender Differences in the Depressive Effect of Widowhood in Later Life. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 56B (2001): 556561.

Lee, G. R., and Dwyer, J. W. Aging Parent-Adult Child Coresidence: Further Evidence on the Role of Parental Characteristics. Journal of Family Issues 17 (1996): 4659.

Lee, G. R.; Dwyer, J. W.; and Coward, R. T. Gender Differences in Parent Care: Demographic Factors and Same-Gender Preferences. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 48 (1993): S9S16.

Lee, G. R.; Willetts, M.; and Seccombe, K. Widowhood and Depression: Gender Differences. Research on Aging 20 (1998): 611629.

Lichtenstein, P.; Gatz, M.; Pedersen, N. L.; Berg, S.; and McLearn, G. E. A Co-twin Control Study of Response to Widowhood. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences 51B (1996): P279P289.

Lieberman, M. Doors Close, Doors Open: Widows, Grieving and Growing. New York: Grosset/ Putnam, 1996.

Lopata, H. Z. Current Widowhood: Myths and Realities. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996.

Mastekaasa, A. The Subjective Well-Being of the Previously Married: The Importance of Unmarried Cohabitation and Time Since Widowhood or Divorce. Social Forces 73 (1994): 665692.

Mendes d. L., Carlos F.; Kasl, S. V.; and Jacobs, S. A Prospective Study of Widowhood and Changes in Symptoms of Depression in a Community Sample of the Elderly. Psychological Medicine 24 (1994): 613624.

Peters, A., and Liefbroer, A. C. Beyond Marital Status: Partner History and Well-Being in Old Age. Journal of Marriage and the Family 59 (1997): 687699.

Prigerson, H. G.; Maciejewski, P. K.; and Rosenheck, R. A. Preliminary Explorations of the Harmful Interactive Effects of Widowhood and Marital Harmony on Health, Health Service Use, and Health Care Costs. The Gerontologist 40 (2000): 349357.

Roan, C. L, and Raley, R. K. Intergenerational Coresidence and Contact: A Longitudinal Analysis of Adult Childrens Response to Their Mothers Widowhood. Journal of Marriage and the Family 58 (1996): 708717.

Schaefer, C.; Quesenberry, C. P. J.; and Wi, S. Mortality Following Conjugal Bereavement and the Effects of a Shared Environment. American Journal of Epidemiology 141 (1995): 11421152.

Schuster, T. L., and Butler, E. W. Bereavement, Social Networks, Social Support, and Mental Health. In Older Bereaved Spouses: Research with Practical Applications. Edited by Dale A. Lund. New York: Hemisphere, 1989. Pages 5568.

Thompson, L. W.; Gallagher, D.; Cover, H.; Galewski, M.; and Peterson, J. Effects of Bereavement on Symptoms of Psychopathology in Older Men and Women. Older Bereaved Spouses: Research with Practical Applications. Edited by Dale A. Lund. New York: Hemisphere, 1989. Pages 1724.

Umberson, D.; Wortman, C. B.; and Kessler, R. C. Widowhood and Depression: Explaining Long-Term Gender Differences in Vulnerability. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 33 (1992): 1024.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 65+ in the United States. Current Population Reports, Special Studies. Series P23, no. 190. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996.

Wortman, C. B., and Silver, R. C. Successful Mastery of Bereavement and Widowhood: A Life-course Perspective. In Successful Aging: Perspectives from the Behavioral Sciences. Edited by Paul B. Baltes and Margaret M. Baltes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Pages 225264.

Widowhood: Economic Issues

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Widowhood is defined as the status of an individual who was legally married to someone who subsequently died. Economically, the death of a spouse will result in loss of income and property that the deceased spouse received or owned, unless provision for their continuation and inheritance is made explicit in income program rules, laws of inheritance, or through the deceased spouses will. For this reason, it is important to understand how marriage and inheritance rights to income and assets are defined in law and by programs that provide income to elderly persons.

Economic effects of widowhood

Widowed older women, on average, report lower incomes and are more likely to be poor than are other groups of elderly persons. This is true in the United States and in other countries as well, though the difference in the United States is greater overall than in other developed countries. In the United States, over 48 percent of the poor elderly are widows, even though widowed women account for only 26 percent of all persons age sixty-five and older. Compared to the slightly more than 4 percent of couples age sixty-five and older who are poor, about 20 percent of widowed women are poor. This poverty rate is considerably lower than the 50 percent of widows who were poor in 1970, reflecting gains in earnings for both men and women, as well as improvements in pension and Social Security benefits. Nevertheless, on average, married women in the United States experience a decline in income when their husbands die. Although widowers (men whose wives have died) are somewhat more likely to be poor than are married couples, data that follow couples over time do not show a decline in average economic well-being for men when wives die.

The decline in economic well-being upon widowhood is somewhat of a puzzle. There exists a well-functioning life insurance market that sells products that insure against the loss of income upon widowhood. In addition, legislation has increased the rights of spouses to spouses pension benefits. While the timing of death is uncertain for a given individual, death probabilities can be predicted with considerable accuracy, permitting the estimation of probabilities and length of widowhood. Information that is readily available on Social Security benefits, and requirements that pensions provide annual reports on workers accrued benefits, would seem to provide the information necessary for couples to protect against any loss of income upon one spouses death.

One explanation for the difference between the economic status of married couples and widows is the association between death probabilities and economic status. Poorer men are more likely to die than higher income men. This is partly because individuals with chronic health problems generally have lower lifetime earnings (and lower retirement income) and die at younger ages than healthier individuals. For these individuals, low wages and early death are both due to long-term health problems. On the other hand, individuals who work in lower-paying jobs may be engaged in more hazardous tasks, have no employer-provided health insurance, and be less able to pay out-of-pocket for health care. Their low earnings are a cause of poorer health and consequent higher mortality. Whatever the reason for the association between lower earnings and poorer health, the lower income of widows can be attributed in part to widows being drawn from couples who were economically worse off when married than were women of the same age whose husbands are alive. This, however, is only a partial explanation. Husbands in higher-income couples do die and, on average, a decline in economic status is measured for their widows as well.

For some couples the out-of-pocket costs of health care associated with a spouses terminal illness or nursing home stay can diminish resources. However, there is little evidence that uncovered health care expenditures are a major contributor to higher poverty rates among widows. The concern that some spouses were left impoverished by payments to long-term care facilities for the care of the other spouse led to the 1988 amendments to the Social Security Act, which permits a community spouse to retain assets and incomes above the limit that previously had been allowed for nursing home reimbursement under the Medicaid program. Currently, the institutionalized spouses eligibility for Medicaid reimbursement of long-term care costs is assessed after a specified share of the couples income and assets (approximately half, up to a maximum amount) is allocated to the community spouse. The remaining share is allocated to the institutionalized spouse, and it is only this share that must be spent-down in order for the institutionalized spouse to be deemed Medicaid-eligible. While these provisions are important to some couples, their influence on widows well-being is limited. Married men have a low probability of nursing home entry. That a similar decline in economic resources is not observed for married men when wives die suggests that the expenses of a terminal illness per se are not a major contributor to the lower economic status of widows.

There is stronger evidence that widows, in contrast to widowers, are more likely to suffer income declines due to the loss of the deceased spouses Social Security and pension benefits. Why this happens, despite the availability of survivor benefits from Social Security and employer-provided pensions, is described below. While couples could insure against the loss of this income through the purchase of life insurance, research shows that many elderly couples are underinsured against probable income loss, and that life insurance is most likely to be purchased by relatively wealthy and healthy couples. The limited evidence available on asset change upon widowhood suggests that some decline in assets occurs upon widowhood. While it is expected that the growth in financial resources owned by women will reduce the financial consequences of widowhood, the persistent association between health, low income, and low assets means that the wives in couples with low lifetime earnings may remain vulnerable to economic insecurity as widows.

A final source of measured income differences between married and widowed women deserves mention. In surveys, some individuals identified as widows may not, in fact, have experienced the death of a marriage partner. This occurs for two reasons. First, it is known that divorced women whose former husbands die often describe themselves as widowed, an identification encouraged in part by the availability of divorced survivor benefits from Social Security. Second, it is also likely that women long separated from their husbands or in common-law marriages may term themselves widows after those partners die. The lower incomes and assets of these individuals may be due to their ineligibility for the benefits provided to widows by laws and programs. Their classification as widows not only exaggerates economic differences between widows and married couples, but also obscures the reasons these women are worse off. This situation may deter policy aimed at improving the economic position of divorced, separated, and never-married elderly women.

Survivor benefits: the U.S. social security program

The 1939 amendments to the Social Security Act provided benefits to wives and widows of retired and deceased workers. These benefits were initially paid to wives and widows age sixty-five or older. In 1950, widowers were made eligible for benefits, provided financial dependency on their wives prior to death could be established. In 1956, spouse and widow benefits were made available to women sixty-two to sixty-four years of age, and in 1961 to widowers in this age group. The age of eligibility for survivor benefits was reduced to sixty for widows in 1965 and for widowers in 1972, the same year that the dependency requirement for widowers was eliminated, making all Social Security survivor benefit provisions gender-neutral. Survivor benefits are payable to divorced spouses if the marriage lasted at least ten years. If each meets all eligibility rules, both a surviving spouse and divorced surviving spouse may receive benefits based on the deceased spouses earnings record.

Survivor benefits are equal to 100 percent of the deceased workers primary insurance amount, but may be reduced if the deceased worker had received retired-worker benefits prior to age of full benefit eligibility; if the survivor receives benefits early; if the survivor is eligible for other social security benefits (the dual entitlement provision described below); if a pension from noncovered work is received; or if the survivor reports other earnings (but only prior to the age of full benefit eligibility when the earnings limit is lifted). Some of these are described here, but program details are available at the Social Security Web site (www.ssa.gov).

Survivor benefits are payable at age sixty or, for disabled survivors, at age fifty-five. However, receipt before the age of full benefit eligibility reduces the amount received. As that age rises from age sixty-five to age sixty-seven (for those turning age sixty-two in 2022 or later) the monthly reduction will be adjusted such that 71.5 percent of the full survivor benefit is always payable at age sixty. A maximum and minimum payable amount applies to some survivor beneficiaries. For survivors who first receive survivor benefits no earlier than the age of full benefit eligibility (currently sixty-five, but increasing to sixty-seven) the survivor benefit can be no more than what was, or would have been, paid to the deceased worker. This means that a survivor of a retired worker who received benefits that were reduced for early retirement can receive no more than that amount, even if the survivor was older than age sixty-five (or, in the future, age sixty-seven) when survivor benefits were first received. Concern that the cap on benefits for widows of workers who received benefits early contributes to the lower income of widows and may lead to a lifting of the cap. The Social Security Handbook provides greater detail on specific program provisions.

Survivor benefits for which an individual is otherwise eligible may be reduced by the dual entitlement provision that, in effect, leads to the payment of the higher benefit for which an individual is eligible. The consequence is that survivors of one- and two-earner couples with identical retired-worker benefits may be paid quite different amounts, with the latter experiencing a larger decline in Social Security income than the former. Table 1, which shows the monthly benefits paid to two hypothetical couples, illustrates this (the higher hypothetical amount approximates the primary insurance amount of males awarded retired-worker benefits in 2000). Couple A is a single earner couple, while spouses in Couple B have identical covered work histories and benefits. The retired-worker benefit of the single earner couple ($1,200) is equal to the combined retired-worker benefits of the two-earner couple. Each spouse is also eligible for a spouse benefit equal to one-half of the other spouses retired-worker benefit. The nonworking spouse in Couple A will be paid an $800 spouse benefit, but, because only the higher of any two benefits is paid, neither spouse in couple B will receive an incremental benefit (the $300 spouse benefit would be less than each spouses $600 retired-workers benefit). Thus, when one spouse in each couple dies, the survivors are paid very different amounts. The survivor benefit is larger for couple A and equal to two-thirds of the pre-widowhood amount, compared to only one-half, for survivor B.

Differences in benefits paid to couples with identical earnings histories have motivated proposals for changes in Social Security survivor benefits. Most reform proposals call for the payment of a given percentage of a couples combined benefits. This would increase the survivor benefits of Couple B, and for all couples that share earnings responsibility. Some proposals include the reduction or elimination of spouse benefits, a change that would equalize predeath benefits paid to couples such as A and B, but leave the survivor benefit differences intact. However, savings from their elimination would help finance the higher cost of uniform survivor benefits for all couples.

Survivor protection: employer-provided pensions and individual accounts

Widows may also experience a decline in income when their spouse receives a single life annuity, a benefit that ceases upon the death of the annuitant. The 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was passed in part to increase the chances that a survivor would receive a benefit from a deceased workers pension. ERISA requires both that private-sector, employer-provided pensions offer a joint-and-survivor benefit (i.e., one that pays some share of the retired-workers benefit to the designated survivor) and that the default payment to a married worker be at least a joint-and-one-half survivor annuity, unless the worker chooses otherwise. The 1984 Retirement Equity Act amended the ERISA survivorship provision to require a spouses notarized signature when the default joint-and-survivor option is rejected or another beneficiary designated.

Unlike Social Security, which does not reduce retired-worker benefits for a married worker with probable survivors, employer-provided pension plans (and other annuities) will reduce the amount paid to a worker when a joint-and-survivor benefit is chosen. This is because the pension is expected to be paid out over the longer period of time that includes the years when the survivor alone is alive. A survivor annuity is a specified percentage of the reduced benefit paid to the worker. Thus, a joint-and-one-half survivor benefit will pay an amount to the pensioner that is less than the single life annuity, and pay a benefit to the survivor, should the pensioner die, that is equal to 50 percent of this reduced amount. Unlike Social Security, which may pay survivor benefits to more than one surviving (or divorced, surviving) spouse, pensions are obligated only to consider one survivor.

Public employer-provided plans are not covered by ERISA, including its survivorship provisions. Although the majority of public plans offer joint-and-survivor benefits, they are not always the default, and they less frequently require notarized approval by the other spouse if a single life pension is selected. Further, the survivor provisions need not be met by retirement savings plans that are not employer-provided benefits.

About two-thirds of married male pensioners select some type of survivor benefit. For some women the loss of a husbands pension income (because they chose a smaller survivor percentage or no survivor benefit) is a major cause of a decline in resources. Men with smaller pensions, men with other sources of income to share with their potential widow, and men whose wives had their own pensions are more likely to choose a single life pension. This last finding suggests that the increase in retirement security for women due to their own pension coverage may be offset by reductions in the probability of husbands selecting survivor benefits.

State law and widowhood status

State law can influence resources of surviving spouses in two important ways: (1) by defining marriage, and, (2) by specifying property ownership and property inheritance rights. Generally, the Social Security program recognizes an individual as a survivor for purposes of receipt of survivor benefits if the courts of the state in which the deceased spouse was living at the time of death would recognize the union as a valid marriage or would recognize the survivor as having the same status as a widow for purposes of sharing in the distribution of personal property when the deceased left no will. Uncertainty under state law about the legal status of a marriage may arise if the relevant state does not recognize the marriageeven if performed legally elsewhereif a prior divorce was not completed or filed, or if common-law marriage is not recognized in that state. Because Social Security does not obtain or maintain records on marital status prior to benefit application, the documentation of marriage, divorce, and death of a spouse is an important part of establishing eligibility for survivor benefits.

State property and inheritance laws are important in determining the assets inherited by survivors. In so-called community property states, assets and income acquired during marriage are considered equally owned by each spouse, and a surviving spouse has ownership rights to half of all property acquired during marriage, even if the deceased spouse had willed more than their share of property to another person. In so-called common-law property states, assets and income are considered to be owned and controlled by the income-earning spouse, although a spouse may still be able to claim a share of a deceased spouses assets under the principle that a working spouse has an obligation to provide for the economic well-being of the other spouse.

Other national examples

Income in the later years of life, including during the period when only one spouse survives, is a result of life-long earnings and savings. In most developed countries, widowed women report lower incomes and are more likely to be poor than are other groups of elderly persons. In part, this is because they are drawn from poorer couples. But the larger explanation lies in the way in which public and private income and assets are, or continue to be, paid to surviving spouses. National social security systems can and do smooth out the consequences of earnings differences. While most developed countries provide survivor benefits (although Sweden has eliminated them), variations in rules about the share of inherited benefits, offsets for other income, minimum age of benefit receipt, minimum guarantees in public programs, and the role of the private sector in retirement income are all thought to contribute to differences in the well-being of widows. Clearly, the generosity and security of the underlying benefits paid to married retired workers provides the first layer of economic protection to surviving spouses. Survivor benefits build on this relative generosity.

The survivor benefits payable in Germany would seem less generous than in the United States, but they build on a more generous retirement base. During the first three months of widowhood, women receive 100 percent of the insureds pension. Thereafter, 60 percent of the pension is paid if the widow is age forty-five or older, if she is disabled, or if she is caring for at least one child. Otherwise, only 25 percent of the insureds pension amount is paid. These benefits are generally not taxed but they may be offset by other income. When the additional income exceeds a limit (equal to about one-third of the maximum benefit), benefits are reduced by 40 percent of the excess amount.

In contrast, the British national insurance system allows for inheritance of benefits with few offsets. Widows age forty-five and over without children get an age-graded share of the Basic Benefit, and at fifty-five they receive the full grant. While widows are eligible only for the higher of their own or their husbands Basic Pension benefit, they may inherit their husbands State Earnings Related Pension Scheme without offsets for other income or earnings. For widows of men who would have reached pensionable age before October 2002 (age sixty-five) the percentage inherited is 100 percent of the benefit, although it is scheduled to decline gradually to a maximum of 50 percent by October 2010.

In Canada, surviving spouses are eligible for a benefit consisting of two parts: a flat-rate benefit and an earnings-related benefit that is equal to a percentage of the benefit for which the deceased spouse would be entitled were he or she age sixty-five. After age sixty-five, this percentage is 60 percent, regardless of the age at which benefits were first received. Survivors may receive both the survivor benefit and their own benefits, subject to limits which may reduce their total below the combined benefits. Information on the Canadian plan can be found at www.hrdcdrhc.gc.ca/isp

Karen C. A. Holden Meeryoung Kim

see also Economic Well-Being; Employee Retirement Income Security Act; Medicaid; Poverty; Social Security, History and Operations; Widowhood.


Auerbach, A. J., and Kotlikoff, L. J. Life Insurance of the Elderly: Its Adequacy and Determinations. In Work, Health, and Income Among the Elderly. Edited by Gary Burtless. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1987. Pages 229267.

Burkhauser, R. B., and Smeeding, T. Social Security Reform: A Budget Neutral Approach to Reducing Older Womens Disproportionate Risk of Poverty. Policy Brief. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Center for Policy Research, 1994.

Smeeding, T. M.; Estes, C. L.; and Glasse, L. Social Security Reform and Older Women: Improving the System. Income Security Policy Paper Series no. 22. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Center for Policy Research, 1999.

Social Security Administration. Social Security Handbook. Available on the World Wide Web at www.ssa.gov

Weir, D. R., and Willis, R. J. Prospects for Widow Poverty. In Forecasting Retirement Needs and Retirement Wealth. Edited by Olivia S. Mitchell, P. Brett Hammond, and Anna M. Rappaport. Philadelphia: Pension Research Council.

Zick, C., and Holden, K. C. An Assessment of the Wealth Holdings of Recent Widows. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences: Social Science 55, no. 2 (2000): S90S97.


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Marriages that do not end in divorce eventually dissolve through the death of a spouse. The stress of bereavement derives largely from the disorganization caused by the loss of the deceased from the social support system of the survivor. The death of a marital partner requires the development of alternative patterns of behavior so that the survivor can maintain satisfactory relations with the family, the kin group, and the community and sustain his or her personal equilibrium. Families exhibit considerable diversity in their attempts to accomplish these transitions. The difficult and sometimes devastating transition to widowhood or widowerhood necessitates a reintegration of roles suitable to a new status. If children are present, parental death precipitates a reorganization of the family as a social system. Roles and status positions must be shifted, values reoriented, and personal and family time restructured. The potential for role strains and interpersonal conflicts becomes evident as relationships are lost, added, or redefined (Pitcher and Larson 1989). Loneliness becomes a major problem. In many modern societies, this adaptive process proceeds with few or no guidelines because the widowed person tends to be "roleless," lacking clear norms or prescriptions for behavior (Hiltz 1979).


Human behaviors generally are guided by the dominant prescriptions and proscriptions embedded in particular societies, and this is reflected in wide cross-cultural variations among those who have lost a spouse through death (Lopata 1996). For example, the situation of Hindu widows in India has undergone numerous changes, ranging from extremely harsh treatment in the past to slow but steady improvement in the modern era. The custom of suttee—the wife's self-immolation on her husband's funeral pyre—has long been outlawed but periodically reappears, especially in rural areas. Even today, widows in that highly patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal society experience isolation and a loss of status. Their remarriage rate is very low. Widows often face a difficult life that is influenced by vestiges of patriarchal and religious dogma and exacerbated by economic problems that force them to become dependent on sons, inlaws, and others. Widowers, by contrast, are encouraged to remarry soon and add progeny to the patriarchal line. Israel is another place where the society and religion are strongly patriarchal and women lose status in widowhood. Jewish mourning rituals "tend to isolate the widow and tie her to the past rather than providing means of creating a new life" (Lopata 1996). Moreover, women who lose husbands through civilian causes of death encounter greater difficulties than do those whose husbands are killed in the military. War widows and their families receive preferential treatment through government policies that give them special recognition, numerous benefits, and many more alternatives for improving their status and prestige than is possible in more traditional societies. Remarriage, for example, is is a much more acceptable alternative for women in Israel than it is in India.

All societies are undergoing various degrees of transition. Korea is a society whose transitional problems are dramatically reflected in the situation of widows. Earlier in Korean history, widowhood resulted in a loss of status and remarriage generally was prohibited. Husbands tended to be much older than their wives and to have a higher mortality rate, and a large number were killed in wars. Moreover, widowers remarried, whereas most widows remained single. All these factors contributed to a widening ratio of widows to widowers over the years. Under the impact of modernization, including increased urbanization and industrialization, Korean society is being transformed, and with it the conditions surrounding the status of widowhood. This transformation includes a shift from authoritarian societal and familial system in a primarily rural environment toward systems based on more equalitarian norms. Widows began to move to the cities, and this had advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, they could accompany their sons and take advantage of urban services and the possibility of new friendships. On the other hand, the move removed them from their extended families and neighborhood friends and the communal supports in their rural villages. Living with a son in the city often strained the daughter-in-law relationship. In addition, being distanced from the relatively stable and integrated life of their villages and lacking friendship networks in their new environment often left them vulnerable to loneliness, especially in the case of the elderly widowed. Presumably, succeeding generations with greater personal resources will encounter fewer adaptational requirements.

While survivors face certain common problems and role strains both within and outside the immediate family, it is difficult to specify a normative course of adjustment. This is the case because the widowed are a heterogeneous group characterized by wide differences in social and psychological characteristics. It also is due to the fact that spousal loss evokes a panorama of emotional and behavioral responses from the survivors, depending on factors such as the timing and circumstances of the spouse's death. For example, a wife whose husband was killed in a military battle will respond differently than she would if he had committed suicide or suffered a long terminal illness. Many other antecedent conditions, such as the quality of the marital relationship, affect the bereavement reactions and coping strategies of survivors.


Census data for the United States show that at the end of the 1990s there were more than 13.5 million widowed persons, 85 percent of whom were women. However, people in the widowed category may leave it through remarriage. Hence, the number of people who have ever experienced spousal loss is much greater than is indicated by these data.

For some decades, the widowed female has outnumbered her male counterpart by an ever widening margin. Three factors account for this: (1) Mortality among females is lower than it is among males, and therefore, greater numbers of women survive to advanced years, (2) wives are typically younger than their husbands and consequently have a greater probability of outliving them, and (3) among the widowed, remarriage rates are significantly lower for women than for men. Other factors that contribute to the preponderance of widows include war, depressions, and disease pandemics.

For several reasons, widowhood has become largely a problem of aged women. Each year in the United States, deaths of spouses create nearly a million new widows and widowers. Among people 65 years of age or over, roughly half the women compared with about 14 percent of the men are widowed. (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1997). Advances in medical technology and the pervasiveness health programs have extended life expectancy. The probability of mortality before middle age has decreased, and for the most part widowhood has been postponed to the later stages of the life cycle. Gains in longevity have been more rapid for women than for men. Thus, the growing proportion of elderly females accents their higher rates of widowhood. About one-fourth of all married women will become widows by age 65, and one-half of the remaining women will be widowed by age 75. During that age span, only one-fifth of men will lose their wives. It is projected that the ratio of widows to widowers will increase dramatically from nearly six to one currently to ten to one over the next quarter century.

Because the large majority of the widowed are women, most studies have concentrated on them, while the social consequences for men who lose their spouses has remained a comparatively unexplored area since Berardo (1970) called attention to this gap three decades ago. Widowers, although fewer in number, face many of the same adjustments that confront their female counterparts. At the same time, there is ambiguous evidence that suggests that widowers have greater vulnerability compared to their female counterparts, while other studies present the situation of widows as more problematic. This disagreement in findings results in part from the failure of many studies to control for the confounding influences of factors such as age, social class, income, health, and retirement.


In making the transition from marriage to widowedhood, the bereaved often are confronted with a variety of personal and familial problems and are not always successful in adapting to those circumstances. This is reflected in the findings that compared with married persons, the widowed consistently have higher rates of mortality, mental disorders, and suicide (Balkwell 1981; Smith et al. 1988). While there is a consensus that bereavement is stressful, research on its effects on physical health has yielded inconsistent results. The evidence shows that the widowed experience poorer health than do the married, but the reasons for this difference are unclear.

Because widowhood is most likely to occur in the elderly, research has focused on that population. However, there is some evidence that the transition to widowhood varies by developmental stage. Older widows adapt more readily because losing a spouse at an advanced age is more the norm, making acceptance of the loss easier than it is for those who are young when widowed. Grieving over the death of a husband or wife at older ages can be exacerbated if additional significant others also die, requiring multiple grieving. This can cause bereavement overload, which makes it difficult for the survivor to complete the grief work and bring closure to the bereavement process (Berardo 1988). There is a consensus that the distress associated with conjugal bereavement diminishes over time. Grief becomes less intense as the years pass, but this is not a simple, linear process. The emotional and psychological traumas of grief and mourning may recur sporadically long after a spouse has died.

Gender differences in adaptation to widowhood have been widely debated. The evidence suggests a somewhat greater vulnerability for widowers (Stroebe and Stroebe 1983). Men are less likely to have same-sex widowed friends, are more likely to be older and less healthy, have fewer family and social ties, and experience greater difficulty in becoming proficient in domestic roles (Berardo 1968, 1970). Higher mortality and suicide rates also suggest greater distress among widowers.

Continuous widowhood has been associated with a loss of income and an increased risk of poverty. Two-fifths of widows fall into poverty at some time during the five years after the death of their husbands. Female survivors, for example, have dramatically higher proportions in poverty than do their divorced counterparts, although both groups experience economic risk resulting from the ending of their marriages that may impede their and their families' adjustment to a new lifestyle (Morgan 1989). There is some evidence that widowers also suffer a decline in economic well-being, although to a lesser degree than do their female counterparts (Zick and Smith 1988). Poor adjustment to widowhood thus may be related to a lack of finances. Elderly individuals often have below-average incomes before the death of a spouse. They may be unwilling or unable to seek employment and are likely to face discrimination in the labor market (Morgan 1989). The younger widowed are more likely to have lost a spouse suddenly and therefore may be unprepared to cope with a lower financial status.

Life insurance has become a principal defense against the insecurity and risk of widowhood in urban industrial society with its nuclear family system. It is a concrete form of security that may help a bereaved family avoid an embarrassing dependence on relatives and the state in the case of an untimely death. However, the amount of insurance obtained is often insufficient to meet the needs of the survivors. Even in instances in which adequate assets have been accumulated, many surviving wives are not prepared to handle the economic responsibilities brought about by a husband's death (Nye and Berardo 1973). Presumably, in the future, a better educated and occupationally experienced population of widows, especially those who were involved in a more equalitarian marital relationship of shared responsibilities, will be better able to cope with their new single status.

Widowhood often leads to changes in living arrangements. Reduced income may force surviving spouses to seek more affordable housing. They also may choose to relocate for other reasons, such as future financial and health concerns, a desire to divest themselves of possessions, and a desire to be near relatives or friends (Hartwigsen 1987). Most often, survivors living alone are women, usually elderly widows. Isolation and lack of social support can lead to deterioration in their physical and mental well-being. Compared with elderly couples, they are much more likely to live in poverty and less likely to receive medical care when it is needed (Kasper 1988).


Similarities and Differences. Early epidemiological analyses suggested that more deleterious effects were associated with separation and divorce than with widowhood. However, later surveys found higher levels of physical and psychological distress among the widowed than among the divorced. (Kitson et al. 1989). These contradictory findings have not been reconciled. However, for many decades, researchers also have perceived a number of similarities in adjustment between the two groups. For both, there are accompanying disruptions in lifestyle related to changes in income, social interactions, definitions of self, lost emotional attachment, and general psychological well-being. For example, similarities in adjustment have been noted with respect to mode of death or cause of divorce, including the amount of prior warning or preparation a person has before either event, the degree of responsibility felt, and the cause of the event. The more unexpected the loss is, the more responsibility one feels for the loss and wonders whether he or she could have prevented it or helped the spouse and the more difficult the adjustment is.

Another similarity is that whether a spouse is lost through divorce or widowhood, the length of time for adjustment shows considerable variability. The degree of emotional attachment affects the degree of anxiety and depression associated with the loss of a partner, and in both cases the attachment declines as time passes. Emotional attachment is a normal outcome of the tendency for people to form strong affectional bonds to significant others and is not pathological. However, the accumulative changes that occur with the loss of a partner make those who are divorced or widowed more vulnerable to psychological and physical illness, suicide, accidents, and death. While most partners return to their former level of functioning within a couple of years after the loss of a spouse, some never recover and continue to have poor levels of functioning.

There are also specific factors that make adjustment in widowhood or divorce more difficult, including age, gender, race, and socioeconomic status. Adjustment to the loss of a spouse in either case appears to be more difficult for younger women. Some analysts argue that age is a confounding factor because younger women are more studied as divorcees and older women more studied as widows and because divorce is more common among the young and widowhood more common among the old. The latter factor means that one's adjustment is somewhat dependent on those who have gone before and can help socialize a person to the new role. However, more recent research suggests that younger women still face more adjustment problems (Kitson et al. 1989; Gove and Shin 1989). Analyses suggest that the young and the old bereaved differ in both the intensity of grief and patterns of grief reactions, especially with respect to adverse health and psychological outcomes within the first two years after the demise of a husband (Sanders 1988). It appears that younger widows experience a different adjustment than do older widows, in part because they have fewer cohort friends who are also widows.

Younger survivors are developmentally "out of sync" with their cohorts, and this exacerbates their sense of loneliness and need for companionship (Levinson 1997) Their expectations may be different because they have more years ahead and more potentially eligible marital partners in the future than do older widows. Blacks appear to have an easier time adjusting to the loss of a spouse through divorce than do whites, and black females, who may receive more familial support than whites do, appear to adjust more easily than do white females. Finally, income and financial security play a major role in adjustment: Those near poverty have the most difficult time coping with the loss of a spouse. Female survivors have more problems coping with the loss of income than do their male counterparts, often because their incomes are tied to health insurance, retirement, and other benefits that accompanied the husband's occupation. Men have more difficulty than do women handling the household chores that were often the responsibility of their wives. Future male cohorts may have less difficulty with this because of changes in the socialization of male children and the rising age at first marriage, and the fact that young men have to cope with household responsibilities on their own before marriage.


The probability of remarriage is significantly lower for widows than for widowers, especially at the older ages. It appears that while a large majority of older widows remain attracted to and interested in men in terms of companionship, for a variety of reasons only a small minority report a favorable attitude toward remarriage (Talbott 1998). Some may feel they are committing psychological bigamy and therefore reject remarriage as an option (DiGiulio 1989). There is also a tendency to idealize the former partner, a process known as sanctification (Lopata 1979). This makes it difficult for widows to find a new partner who can compare favorably with the idealized image of the deceased (Berardo 1982). Widows also remarry less frequently than do widowers because of the lack of eligible men and the existence of cultural norms that degrade the sexuality of older women and discourage them from selecting younger mates. Many women manage to develop and value a new and independent identity after being widowed, leading them to be less interested in reentering the marriage market.

There are other barriers to remarriage for the widowed. Dependent children limit the opportunities of their widowed parents to meet potential mates or develop relationships with them. Older children may oppose remarriage out of concern for their inheritance. Widowed persons who cared for a dependent spouse through a lengthy terminal illness may be unwilling to risk bearing that burden again.


The increased risk of mortality for widowed persons has been widely reported. Men are at a greater risk than women after bereavement. The causes of these differences are unknown. Marital selection theory posits that healthy widowers remarry quickly, leaving a less healthy subset that experiences premature mortality. Other factors, such as common infection, shared environment, and lack of adequate daily care, also may influence the higher mortality rates of the widowed.

Studies of whether anticipatory grief or forewarning of the pending death of a spouse contributes to adjustment to bereavement have yielded conflicting results (Roach and Kitson 1989). Some suggest that anticipation is important because it allows the survivor to begin the process of role redefinition before the death, whereas unanticipated death produces more severe grief reactions. Survivors who have experienced unexpected deaths of their spouses report more somatic problems and longer adjustment periods than do those who anticipated the loss. Anticipatory role rehearsal does not consistently produce smoother or more positive adjustment among the bereaved. It appears that the coping strategies employed by survivors vary with the timing and mode of death, which in turn influence the bereavement outcome.


It has been suggested that social support plays an important role in the bereavement outcome and acts as a buffer for stressful life events, but the research is somewhat inconclusive, partly as a result of difficulties identifying those support efforts which produce positive outcomes and those which do not and the fact that support needs change over time. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the extent to which members of the social network provide various types of support to the bereaved is important in the pattern of recovery and adaptation (Vachon and Stanley 1988). Available confidants and access to self-help groups to assist with emotional management can help counter loneliness and promote a survivor's reintegration into society. The social resources of finances and education have been found to be particularly influential in countering the stresses associated with the death of a spouse. Community programs that provide education, counseling, and financial services can facilitate the efforts of the widowed and their families to restructure their lives.

For many older widows, a substantial period of future living alone remains: on average, another fourteen years or more. Borrowing from occupational career models, some researchers have suggested that adopting a "career of widowhood" orientation may facilitate the recovery and well-being of these survivors: "That is, for most persons, widowhood need not be considered the end of productive life, but rather the beginning of a major segment of the life course, and one that should be pursued vigorously in order for it to be successful and fulfilling" (Hansson and Remondet 1988). In this perspective, the widowed are encouraged to seek control over their existence by actively construing their own life courses. The assumption is that they will adapt better if they plan for where they want to be at different potential stages during the entire course of widowhood. This plan might include the following phases: "a time for emotional recovery; a time for taking stock, reestablishing or restructuring support relationships, and formulating personal directions for the future; a time for discovering a comfortable and satisfying independent lifestyle, and for determining an approach to maintaining economic, psychological, and social functioning; perhaps a time for personal growth and change; and a time for reasoned consideration of one's last years and assertion of a degree of control over the arrangements surrounding one's own decline and death."

There is considerable heterogeneity among the survivor population and thus in their ability to implement a successful "career in widowhood." They differ, for example, in relational competence, that is, characteristics that help them acquire, develop, and maintain personal relationships that are essential for social support (Hansson and Remondet 1988). Establishing a new and satisfying autonomous identity after the loss of a spouse is never easy. The probability of achieving that goal can, however, be enhanced through counseling strategies designed for individual circumstances and programs that help survivors avoid desolation coupled with meaningful social and familial support systems.

(see also: Death and Dying; Filial Responsibility; Remarriage; Social Gerontology)


Arbuckle, Nancy Weber, and Brian de Vries 1995 "The Long-Term Effects of Later Life Spousal and Parental Bereavement on Personal Functioning." The Gerontologist 35:637–647.

Aquilino, William S. 1994 "Later Life Parental Divorce and Widowhood: Impact on Young Adults' Assessment of Parent Child Relations." Journal of Marriage and the Family 56:908–922.

Balkwell, Carolyn 1981 "Transition to Widowhood: A Review of the Literature." Family Relations 30:117–127.

Bennett, Kate Mary 1997 "Longitudinal Study of Well-being in Widowed Women." International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 12:61–66.

Berardo, Donna H. 1982 "Divorce and Remarriage at Middle-Age and Beyond." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 464:132–139.

—— 1988 "Bereavement and Mourning." In Hannelore Wass, Felix M. Berardo, and Robert A. Neimeyer, eds., Dying: Facing the Facts, 2nd ed. New York: Hemisphere.

Berardo, Felix M. 1968 "Widowhood Status in the United States: A Neglected Aspect of the Family Life-Cycle." Family Coordinator 17:191–203.

—— 1970 "Survivorship and Social Isolation: The Case of the Aged Widower." Family Coordinator 19:11–25.

—— 1992 "Widowhood." In Edgar F. Borgatta and Marie L. Borgatta, eds., Encyclopedia of Sociology. New York: Macmillan.

—— 1995 "Widowhood." In David Levinson, ed., Encyclopedia of Marriage and the Family. New York: Simon & Schuster, Macmillan.

Campbell, Scott, and Phyllis R. Silverman 1996 Widower: When Men Are Left Alone. Amityville, New York: Baywood Publishing Company.

Clark, Philip G., Robert W. Siviski, and Ruth Weiner 1986 "Coping Strategies of Widowers in the First Year." Family Relations 35:425–430.

DiGiulio, R. C. 1989 Beyond Widowhood. New York: Free Press.

Dimond, Margaret, Dale A. Lund, and Michael S. Caserta 1987 "The Role of Social Support in the First Two Years of Bereavement in an Elderly Sample." Gerontologist 27:599–604.

Dykstra, Pearl A. 1995 "Loneliness Among the Never and Formerly Married: The Importance of Supportive Friendships." Journal of Gerontology 50B: S321–S329.

Gove, Walter R., and Hee-Choon Shin. 1989 "The Psychological Well-Being of Divorced and Widowed Men and Women." Journal of Family Issues 10:122–144.

Hansson, Robert O., and Jacquline H. Remondet 1988 "Old Age and Widowhood: Issues of Personal Control and Independence." Journal of Social Issues 44:159–174.

Hartwigsen, G. 1987 "Older Widows and the Transference of Home." International Journal of Aging and Human Development 25:195–207.

Hiltz, Starr R. 1979 "Widowhood: A Roleless Role." In Marvin B. Sussman, ed., Marriage and Family. Collected Essay Series. New York: Hayworth Press.

Hong, Lawrence K., and Robert W. Duff 1994 "Widows in Retirement Communities: The Social Context of Subjective Well-being." The Gerontologist 34:347–352.

Kasper, Judith D. 1988 Aging Alone—Profiles and Projections. Baltimore: Commonwealth Fund.

Kitson, Gay C., Karen Benson Babri, Mary Joan Roach, and Kathleen S. Placidi 1989 "Adjustment to Widowhood and Divorce." Journal of Family Issue 10:5–32.

Levinson, Deborah S. 1997 "Young Widowhood: A Life Change Journay." Journal of Personal and Interpersonal Loss 2:277–291.

Littlewood, Jane 1994 "Widows' Weeds and Women's Needs: The Re-feminization of Death, Dying and Bereavement." In Sue Wilkonson and Celia Kitzinger, eds., Women and Health: Feminist Perspective. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Lopata, Helen Z. 1973 Widowhood in an American City. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman.

—— 1979 Women as Widows. New York: Elsevier.

—— 1996 Current Widowhood. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Morgan, Leslie 1989 "Economic Well-Being Following Marital Termination: A Comparison of Widowed and Divorced Women." Journal of Family Issues 10:86–101.

Murdock, Melissa E. et al. 1998 "Contribution of Small Life Events to the Psychological Distress of Married and Widowed Older Women." Journal of Women and Aging 10:3–22.

Nye, F. Ivan, and Felix M. Berardo 1973 The Family: Its Structure and Interaction. New York: Macmillan

Pitcher, Brian L., and Don C. Larson 1989 "Elderly Widowhood." In Stephen J. Bahr and Evan T. Peterson, eds., Aging and the Family. Lexington, Mass.: Heath.

Roach, Mary J., and Gay T. Kitson 1989 "Impact of Forewarning and Adjustment to Widowhood and Divorce." In Dale A. Lund, ed., Older Bereaved Spouses. New York: Hemisphere.

Sandell, Steven B., and Howard M. Iams 1997 "Reducing Women's Poverty by Shifting Social Security Benefits from Retired Couples to Widows." Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 16:279–297.

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Talbott, Maria M. 1998 "Older Widows' Attitudes towards Men and Remarriage." Journal of Aging Studies." 12:429–449.

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Vachon, Mary L.S., and Stanley K. Stylianos, 1988 "The Role of Social Support in Bereavement." Journal of Social Issues 44:175–190.

Zick, Cathleen D., and Ken R. Smith 1988 "Recent Widowhood, Remarriage, and Changes in Economic Well-Being." Journal of Marriage and the Family 50:233–244.



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Losing one's mate is among the most stressful of all life events. It presents painful adaptational challenges to spouses and families. The loss dramatically marks the transition to widowhood and impacts an increasing proportion of the diverse aging population. Worldwide evidence shows a broad range of responses to widowhood. Cross-cultural variations among marital survivors reflect the changing cultural values of particular societies (Lopata 1996). For example, in the past Hindu widows were treated harshly in the highly patriarchal society of India. Loss of a husband meant a loss of status, economic dependency, and social isolation. Remarriage was not encouraged. Although still far from receiving equitable treatment in comparison to widowers, widows' situation has gradually improved over time. In Israel, which is also a strongly religious and patriarchal society, war widows are given greater recognition and preferential benefits in comparison with their civilian counterparts. Remarriage is not discouraged, as it was in India. In an earlier agriculturally based Korean society, becoming a widow resulted in lower status and a general prohibition against remarriage. Under the influences of growing modernization, including urbanization and industrialization, the cultural status of widows improved, especially for those who moved to the cities.

Widows in parts of the world undergoing modernization also find such conditions allow them a more flexible role compared to the past. It is difficult, however, to make international comparisons on this topic. Date gathered by the United Nations Statistics Division during the 1990s show considerable variation in the widowed population both within and between countries and regions of the world. For example, in Egypt three-fifths of those women sixty years of age and over are widows, compared to slightly more than two-fifths in Ethiopia. Moreover, the available rates are not systematically calculated in terms of age categories and time periods. Thus, for some countries, the percentage are based upon the widowed fifty-five years of age and over, whereas in other countries the base is fifty years of age or over.

Demography of the Widowed

There are more than 13.7 million widowed persons in the United States, over 11 million of these being women. (American Association of Retired Persons 2001) Female survivors have been outdistancing their male counterparts by a continually widening margin and now represent approximately 80 percent of the widowed population in the United States. In 1940 there were twice as many widows as widowers; by 1990 the ratio of widows to widowers had climbed to more than 4 to 1. This ratio is expected to widen in the future.

Several factors may explain the imbalanced gender ratio among the widowed. Women experience greater longevity than men. First, because their death rate is lower than men's, larger numbers of women survive into advanced years. Second, wives are generally younger than their husbands, a fact that increases their probability of surviving their spouses even without the differences in longevity. Third, among the widowed, remarriage rates are significantly lower for women than men. Therefore, many men leave widower status by wedding again, whereas many women do not, thereby adding to the surplus of female survivors.

Advances in medical technology, widespread sanitation and health programs, and improved living conditions have extended life expectancy. In the process, the probability of dying prior to midlife has greatly diminished. Consequently, widowhood has, for the most part, been postponed to the later stages of the life cycle. At the beginning of the twentieth century, about one in twenty-five persons was sixty-five years of age or older, as compared to one in nine at the end of the century. The gains in longevity have been more rapid for women than for men; hence, the growing proportion of elderly women in the population highlights the overall rates of widowhood. It has been estimated that about one-fourth of all married women in the United States will be widowed by age sixty-five, and that one-half of the remaining women will have lost their husbands by age seventy-five (Berardo 1992). Because there is little chance that the mortality differences between genders will be reversed anytime soon, the excess of women at the upper ages will continue to increase, and the older population will be comprised of a larger proportion of widows. Aware of these trends, researchers have focused their attention primarily on the conditions surrounding female survivors. Although comparative knowledge about the experiences and needs of males who have lost their spouses remains insufficient there are a few attempts to learn more about their experiences. (Blieszner 1993; Zick and Smith 1991; Lee et al. 2001)

Bereavement and Adaptation

Most people are not prepared for the death of a spouse. Much of the stress of bereavement evolves from the loss of support of the deceased within the family system. The usually painful transition that occurs with the loss of a spouse begins as one assumes the new roles of a new status.

Roles and status positions must be shifted, values and goals reoriented, and personal and family time restructured in households with children who live with a widowed parent. The potential for role strains and interpersonal conflicts becomes evident as relationships are lost, added, or redefined (Pitcher and Larson 1989). Loneliness is a major problem. In the case of older bereaved spouse, in particular, loneliness and difficulties associated with the tasks of daily living are among the most common and trying adjustments encountered (Lund 1989). In many modern societies, this adaptive process typically proceeds with few or no guidelines (or even ambiguous signals) from the culture as to how to act. In this regard, the role of the widowed person tends to be in a "roleless" role, inasmuch as it lacks clearly specified norms or prescriptions for appropriate behavior (Hiltz 1979).

Although survivors face some common problems both within and outside the immediate family, it is difficult to specify a normative course of adjustment. This is partly because widows and widowers are a diverse group characterized by wide differences in social and psychological characteristics. It is also due to the fact that spousal loss evokes a broad spectrum of emotional and behavioral responses from the bereaved, depending on such factors as the nature of the marital relationship and the timing and circumstances under which death occurred. For example, a wife whose husband was killed on the battlefield, in an automobile accident, or in a robbery will respond differently than if he had committed suicide or suffered a long terminal illness. Many other types of such antecedent conditions, such as the quality of the marital relationship or the age of the deceased, affect bereavement reactions and coping strategies of survivors. In U.S. society, for instance, a young wife whose life is suddenly taken is mourned differently from a much older woman, married fifty years, who succumbs after a lengthy illness. As a result of such factors, responses to bereavement often show substantial variation.

Studies of whether anticipatory grief, or fore-warning of the pending death of a spouse, contributes to bereavement adjustment have yielded conflicting results (Roach and Kitson 1989). Some suggest that such anticipation is important because it allows the survivor to begin the process of role redefinition prior to the death, whereas unanticipated death produces more severe grief reactions. Those who experienced unexpected deaths of their marital partners report more somatic problems and longer adjustment periods than those who anticipated the loss. Anticipatory role rehearsal does not, however, consistently produce smoother or more positive adjustment among the bereaved. Again, the effects of such preparation vary with the age of the person, whether death occurs as an on-time versus off-time event, and other factors. In sum, the coping strategies of survivors vary with the timing and mode of death, which in turn influence the bereavement outcome.

In making the transition to widowed status, the bereaved are often confronted with a variety of personal and familial problems. They are not always successful in adapting to these circumstances. This is reflected in the findings that, when compared to married persons, the widowed rather consistently show higher rates of mortality, mental disorders, and suicide (Balkwell 1981). Although it is generally agreed that the bereavement process is stressful, studies of its effect on physical health have not yielded consistent results. The evidence does show that people who have lost their mates generally experience poorer health than those who are still married, but the reasons for this remain unclear.

Bereavement and Developmental Stages

The degree of adjustment encountered by widowed people in the transition to their new status varies by developmental stages. The death of a marital partner in young marriages is relatively uncommon; nevertheless, when it does occur it is apt to make bereavement and the survivor role much more difficult to accommodate than in later life "because of unfulfilled hopes and dreams, the lack of fit with other couples at the same life phase, and the lack of models of the same cohort" undergoing this experience (Walsh and McGoldrick 1991, p. 18). Typically there has been little or no emotional preparation for the shock and isolation of early widowhood. Being suddenly left alone to rear young children, for example, can be extremely trying, and at the same time impedes the progress of personal and familial recovery. The immediate and growing financial and caretaking obligations of single parenthood can interfere with the tasks of mourning (Levinson 1997). Adult friends and relatives can and often do provide assistance with everyday chores, such as cooking and housecleaning. Bereaved husbands, generally speaking, are more apt to receive these kinds of practical supports than bereaved wives. On the other hand, the wives are more likely to have a more extensive range of intimate family and friendship relationships that help to facilitate their emotional grief work.

Older people adapt more readily to widowhood because losing a spouse at advanced ages is more the norm and often anticipated, thus making acceptance of the loss somewhat easier. Research on surviving spouses over age sixty-five revealed that those who were more dependent upon their spouses show higher levels of anxiety than those who were not (Carr et al. 2000). Grief over the death of a husband or wife at older ages can be exacerbated if additional significant others also die requiring multiple or simultaneous grieving. This can cause bereavement overload, which makes it difficult for the survivor to complete the grief work and bring closure to the bereavement process. There is general consensus that the distress associated with conjugal bereavement diminishes over time. Grief becomes less intense as years pass, but this is not a simple, linear process. The emotional and psychological traumas of grief and mourning may sporadically reappear long after the spouse has died.

Gender Differences

The issue of gender differences in adaptation to widowhood has long been debated. The evidence does suggest a somewhat greater vulnerability for widowers (Stroebe and Stroebe 1983; Lee et al. 2001). Men are less likely to have same-sex widowed friends, more likely to be older and less healthy, have fewer family and social ties, and experience greater difficulty in becoming proficient in domestic roles (Lee et al. 2001). Higher mortality and suicide rates also suggest somewhat greater distress among widowers. It is important to note, however, that widows and widowers share many similar bereavement experiences and adjustments. There is considerable empirical support for the conclusion that although they do experience some aspects of grief differently, men and women have a good deal in common with respect to loss-related feelings, mental and physical health, and social life (Lund 1989).

Duration of widowhood has been associated with loss of income and increased risk of poverty. The death of husbands results in lower financial status for wives, many of whom become impoverished following bereavement (Hungerford 2001). Two-fifths of widows fall into poverty at some time during the five years following the death of their husbands. Widowers also suffer a decline in economic well-being, albeit to a lesser degree than their female counterparts (Zick and Smith 1991). People often fail to plan for the economic consequences of spousal loss. Elderly persons frequently have below-average incomes prior to the death of their marital partner. Once bereaved, their circumstances may worsen, especially if they have been stay-at-home wives who were highly dependent on their husband's income. They may be unwilling or unable to seek or find employment, and they are likely to face discrimination in the labor market (Morgan 1989; MacDonald 2000). Given their age, they may lack the education or skills required to compete for jobs. The younger widowed are more likely to have lost a spouse suddenly and may thus be unprepared to cope with lowered financial subsistence. Poor adjustment to being widowed, therefore, can often be attributed to socioeconomic deprivation. This is especially apt to be the case among members of disadvantaged racial/ethnic groups, whose recovery may be impeded by discrimination and inequitable social policies that affect their health and financial circumstances (Angel 2001; Berardo 2001; Blieszner 1993).

Regardless of the income level, the widowed person faces financial transitions upon the death of a spouse. These include dealing with: (1) immediate practical concerns that may take one to two weeks; (2) financial and legal concerns that might take one week to several months; and (3) settling tax concerns that may take one to two years. There are many published guidelines and web sites that hold useful tips, pitfalls, and checklists for this process.

Widowhood often leads to changes in living arrangements. Reduced income may force surviving spouses to seek more affordable housing. They may also choose to relocate for other reasons such as future financial and health concerns, a desire to divest of possessions, or to be near kin or friends. Most often, the people living alone are women—usually elderly widows. Isolation and lack of social support can lead to deterioration in physical and mental well-being. Compared to elderly married couples, widows and widowers are much more apt to live in poverty and are less likely to receive medical care when needed (Hungerford 2001).

As mentioned above, the probability for remarriage is significantly less for widows than widowers, especially at older ages. They may feel they are committing psychological bigamy and therefore reject remarriage as an option (DiGiulio 1989). There is also a tendency to idealize the former partner, a process known as sanctification (Lopata 1996). This makes it difficult to find a new partner who can compare favorably with the idealized image of the deceased. There are other barriers to remarriages for the widowed. Dependent children may limit the opportunities of their widowed parents to meet potential mates or to develop relationships with them. Older children may oppose remarriage out of concern for their inheritance. Widowed persons who cared for a dependent spouse through a lengthy, terminal illness may be unwilling to risk this burden again. Widowers remarry more frequently than widows (Berardo 1992). This is due to the lack of eligible men and cultural norms that degrade the sexuality of older women and discourage them from selecting younger mates. Many women manage to develop and value a new and independent identity beyond widowhood, leading them to be less interested in reentering the marriage market.

Social Support and Reintegration

Although social support is presumed to play an important role in bereavement outcomes and act as a buffer for stressful life events, the research is inconclusive. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the extent to which members of the social network provide various types of assistance to the bereaved is important to the pattern of recovery and adaptation (Ferraro 2001). Available confidants and access to self-help groups to assist with emotional management can help counter loneliness and promote the survivor's reintegration into society.

Much of the variability in bereavement response can be attributed to intrapersonal resources that make coping easier. For example, it has been found that a sense of optimism and belief that life has meaning is integral to how well the widowed adapted to their bereavement (Caserta and Lund 1993). Some other major factors that strongly influence the degree of difficulty experienced by widowed individuals include self-confidence (i.e., the belief that one will be able to manage the situation); a sense of optimism and self-efficacy, derived from having coped with previous life transitions; and strong self-esteem (Parkes 1988).

Widows and widowers show considerable variation in concluding their grief work, some essentially completing the process in months, others sometimes taking years to adapt to life without their mate. A small minority of people never get over the trauma of the loss. With help, however, the majority of the widowed are capable of eventually adapting to their new circumstances, managing their everyday affairs and maintaining a sense of purpose and a life of personal satisfaction.

See also:Death and Dying; Elders; Family Roles; Filial Responsibility; Grief, Loss and Bereavement; Health and Families; Housing; Inheritance; In-Law Relationships; Later Life Families; Loneliness; Marital Quality; Poverty; Remarriage; Retirement; Self-Esteem; Single-Parent Families; Stress; Suicide


angel, j. l. (2001). "challenges of caring for hispanic elders." public policy and aging report 11:11–15.

balkwell, c. (1981). "transition to widowhood: a review of the literature." family relations 30:117–127.

berardo, d. h. (2001). "social and psychological issues of aging and health." in therapeutics in the elderly, 3rd edition, ed. j. c. delafuente and r. b. stewart. cincinnati, oh: harvey whitney books.

berardo, f. m. (1992). "widowhood." in encyclopedia ofsociology, ed. e. f. borgatta and m. l. borgatta. new york: macmillan.

blieszner, r. (1993). "a socialist-feminist perspective on widowhood." journal of aging studies 7:171–182.

carr, d.; house, j. s.; kessler, r. c.; nesse, r. m.; sonnega, j.; and wortman, c. (2000). "marital quality and psychological adjustment to widowhood among older adults: a longitudinal analysis." journal of gerontology: social sciences 44b:s197–s207.

caserta, m., and lund, d. a. (1993). "intrapersonal resources and the effectiveness of self-help groups for bereaved older adults." gerontologist 33:616–629.

digiulio, r. c. (1989). beyond widowhood. new york: free press.

ferraro, k. f. (2001). "aging and role transitions." in handbook of aging and social sciences, ed. r. h. binstock and l. k. george. san diego, ca: academic press.

hiltz, s. r. (1979). "widowhood: a roleless role." in marriage and family, ed. m. b. sussman. new york: haworth press.

hungerford, t. l. (2001). "the economic consequences of widowhood on elderly women in the united states and germany." gerontologist 41:103–110.

lee, g. r.; demaris, a.; bavin, s.; and sullivan, r. (2001). "gender differences in the depressive effect of widowhood in later life." journal of gerontology: social sciences 56b:s56–s61.

levinson, d. s. (1997). "young widowhood: a life change journey." journal of personal and interpersonal loss 2:277–291.

lopata, h. z. (1996). current widowhood: myths and realities. thousand oaks, ca: sage publications.

lund, d. a. (1989). "conclusions about bereavement in later life and implications for interventions and future research." in older bereaved spouses, ed. d. a. lund. new york: hemisphere.

morgan, l. (1989). "economic well-being following martial termination." journal of family issues 10:86–101.

parkes, c. m. (1988). "bereavement as a psychological transition." journal of social issues 44:53–65.

pitcher, b. l., and larson, d. c. (1989). "elderly widowhood." in aging and the family, ed. s. j. bahr and e. t. peterson. lexington, ma: d.c. heath.

roach, m. j., and kitson, g. t. (1989). "impact of forewarning and adjustment to widowhood and divorce." in older bereaved spouses, ed. d. a. lund. new york: hemisphere.

stroebe, m. s., and stroebe, w. (1983). "who suffers more: sex differences in health risks of the widowed." psychological bulletin 93:279–299.

walsh, f., and mcgoldrick, m. (1991). "loss and the family: a systemic perspective." in living beyond loss: death in the family, ed. f. walsh and m. mcgoldrick. new york: norton.

zick, c. d., and smith, k. r. (1991). "patterns of economic change surrounding the death of a spouse." journal of gerontology: social sciences 46:5310–5320.

other resources

american association of retired persons. (2001). "coping with grief and loss: statistics about widowhood." available from www.aarp.org/griefandloss/stats.html.

macdonald, j. (2000). "careful choices can help brighten the future after the sudden loss of a spouse." available from http://www.bankrate.com/brm/news/sav/2000530.asp.




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Widowhood refers to the status of a person whose spouse has died and who has not remarried. Women in this situation are referred to as widows, and men as widowers. In the United States and other Western nations, approximately 6 percent of the total population is widowed and this proportion increases to about one-third of the population sixty-five years of age or older. Recent trends indicate that widowhood is becoming less common, largely because more people either never marry or are separated or divorced.

Widowhood is commonly viewed as a life transition. A transition is a major change in life circumstances that takes place over a relatively short period of time but has lasting effects on large areas of a person's life. It requires the development of new life habits or ways of coping. Widowhood is one of the most stressful life transitions, although most people adjust successfully over time.

Most research on widowhood has focused on women, partly because widows outnumber widowers by nearly five to one. It is estimated that half of all marriages end with the death of the husband, whereas only one-fifth end with the death of the wife in Western societies, and women generally outlive men and men usually marry women who are younger than they are. Further, while most older widowed people do not remarry, widowers have remarriage rates over eight times as high as those of widows.

Different societies attach very different customs and values to widowhood, and these have a strong influence on how it is experienced. Most widows go through an intense grieving process early in widowhood, marked by feelings of depression, mood changes, disrupted sleep patterns, obsessive thoughts about the deceased, and disorientation. However, the intensity of grief usually decreases significantly within a year. Many widows and widowers begin to develop new strengths and talents and remake their social networks to include new friends and contacts. Intense grief is not required for recovery from widowhood.


Research on the consequences of widowhood for health and mental health is fraught with contradictory findings. Early studies found high mortality rates among widows, but recent work has not replicated these results. One of the biggest problems reported by both widows and widowers is loneliness, which may last well beyond the usual period of mourning. Symptoms of depression and decreased life satisfaction may also last for several years.

Widowhood does not appear to worsen health. However, it disrupts daily routines, especially those associated with food preparation and consumption. Widowed people commonly report decreased social participation. Among women, consequences of widowhood may include a lower income and, in older age groups, increased likelihood of nursing home placement.

One critical factor in how well the surviving spouse copes is the manner of the other spouse's death. Suicide can be devastating for the surviving spouse, and accidental death is more traumatic than death resulting from an illness. However, adjustment may also be difficult when the spouse's death follows a prolonged condition, such as Alzheimer's disease. In general, individuals are likely to cope better if they have had some time to prepare for imminent widowhood but are not exhausted by prolonged or intense caregiving.

A key concept in understanding the impacts of widowhood is that of "on-time" versus "off-time," which refer to the surviving spouse's life stage. Being widowed in later life is on-time and can be anticipated. In contrast, being widowed in early adulthood is off-time, and is both unexpected and likely to entail concurrent stresses, such as the grief of dependent children or the loss of the major source of household income.

Men are affected more by widowhood than women. Widowhood is less likely to be anticipated by men, and men are generally more dependent on their spouse for social and emotional support. A person who is devoted to his or her role as a husband or wife has a greater adjustment to make when widowed than an individual who has other valued roles.

Widowhood may be experienced as a positive transition. It may even come as a relief if the marriage was unhappy or burdensome. In comparison with married people, widowed people express less strain and a greater capacity to make plans and carry them out. Widowed individuals adjust better if they are involved in physical activity, can rely on support from family members and friends, and can develop new interests and friendships.


Dealing with widowhood has remained largely in the private domain. Widowed people and their families are usually left to cope as best they can, with little attention from government or service providers. In contrast, other transitions commonly experienced by older people (such as retirement and becoming a caregiver), although less stressful and disruptive, have attracted considerable policy attention and service provision.

However, most older people have regular contact with their doctors, and general medical practitioners are in a good position to monitor any enduring, negative impacts of widowhood and to suggest appropriate interventions.

Yvonne D. Wells

Colette J. Browning

(see also: Aging of Population; Bereavement; Gerontology; Life Expectancy and Life Tables; Women's Health )


Lee, G. R.; Willets, M. C.; and Seccombe, K. (1998). "Widowhood and Depression: Gender Differences." Research on Aging 20:611630.

Lieberman, M. A. (1996). "Perspective on Adult Life Crises." In Adulthood and Aging: Research on Continuities and Discontinuities, ed. V. L. Bengtson. New York: Springer.

Lopata, H. Z. (1996). Current Widowhood: Myths and Realities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Martin-Matthews, A. (1996). "Widowhood and Widow-erhood." In Encyclopedia of Gerontology, ed. J. E. Birren. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

McCallum, J. (1986). "Retirement and Widowhood Transitions." In Aging and Families, ed. H. L. Kendig. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Riggs, A. (1997). "Men, Friends and Widowhood: Toward Successful Ageing." Australian Journal on Ageing 16:182185.

Smith, K. R., and Zick, C. D. (1996). "Risk of Mortality Following Widowhood: Age and Sex Differences by Mode of Death." Social Biology 43:5971.

Wells, Y. D., and Kendig, H. L. (1997). "Health and Well-Being of Spouse Caregivers and the Widowed." The Gerontologist 37(5):666674.


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Brides and grooms in the late colonial, Revolutionary War, and early national periods took to heart the words "until death do us part" when exchanging vows. Women in that era usually were several years younger than the men they married. Most marriages did not survive intact, however, until couples attained a ripe old age.

The death of a spouse in the prime of life affected more women than men. "[It is] the most Forlorn and Dismal of all states," wrote Abigail Adams in 1778, nearly half a century before her own husband died. Widowhood altered family arrangements, transforming women's economic and legal status. Having rarely been able to make autonomous decisions, or even to hold possessions in their own name, women had to learn new survival skills. Letters from the period indicate that some widows adapted reasonably well, while others withdrew from society, angry and depressed. Once widowed, many women began a sad decline into senectitude.

The religious commandment to "honor thy father and mother," usually reinforced by the courts, in principle gave widows and widowers the right to expect their children to care for them until they died—or, depending on their age and wealth, at least until they remarried. Custom dictated that at least one (adult) child remain with the surviving parent, providing labor and support. In return, she or he received in due course a disproportionate share of the estate.

Economic realities reinforced filial piety. Especially in farming communities, men's assets on average increased with advancing years, peaking around age sixty. Women's prosperity or poverty depended on their spouses' success or lack thereof—regardless of how much the wives had contributed as household managers and producers of goods. Control of the land and other property gave the parents authority over their children's future sufficient to ensure the former a basis for financial assistance in later years. Household heads generally retained control of familial wealth until they died—though many fathers gave loans, bequests, and gifts to mature offspring as they were starting out. Unless otherwise stated in the will, a woman would count on her "widow's third," even in situations where her husband died intestate. This was the single most important source of financial security for widows during the period. Even if the third was modest in value, it typically sufficed, providing a widow enough leverage to exert a measure of control over her offspring.

Some husbands were very precise in stipulating what they were leaving to their widows. They even specified the names of the livestock their surviving spouses were to receive. They warned their children that failure to care for their widowed mothers might result in their loss of valued possessions. Some men went a step further, naming their wives guardians or trustees of their estates. Yet detailed wills did not always work to the widow's advantage. By specifying the room in the homestead in which the widow would sleep, a woman's primacy in the household often passed to a younger family member. Rich men sometimes privileged certain children to the detriment of their wives. Those concerned with the inter-generational transfer of their estates and property could stipulate that their spouses would forfeit their designated assets should they choose to remarry. In the Maryland court of appeals, Martha Griffith in 1798 won her right to one-third of her husband's personal property, though her late spouse had pointedly left all his possessions to his children and excluded her.

Widows unacquainted with familial finances often were shocked to find that they had inherited considerable debts. To make ends meet, widows relied on the acumen of their adult children or neighbors. During a period in which a majority of families struggled to eke out a living, financial insecurity heightened most widows' sense of vulnerability.

Most widows crafted ways to remain as independent as possible. Typically, this meant retaining possession of the family homestead as long as possible. When that was no longer feasible, women moved in with their children, doing domestic duties for room and board. Arrangements rarely were permanent: widows moved from the residences of siblings, offspring, and friends as circumstances warranted.

With advancing years, many widows were forced to rely on outsiders for assistance. Under the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, which became the basis of most state welfare provisions, local officials had to support the needy in the community. Typically, agents provided poor widows with food, money, and wood so that they could remain in their homes. Sometimes, women were placed in the residence of the householder who made the lowest bid for their upkeep. Over time, an increasing number of cities and counties erected poorhouses, where the sick, deaf, blind, lame, orphans, and criminals shared shelter with widows. "Of all the classes of the poor," declared Josiah Quincy in an 1821 report on welfare in Boston, "that of virtuous old age has the most unexceptionable claims upon society." Young widows who were unwilling to work while in the almshouse would not be viewed so favorably as infirm, impoverished women.

Revolutionary War pensions provided some relief for eligible widows. The first pensions, authorized in 1780, provided officers' widows half of their late husbands' salaries for seven years if their spouses had remained in the Continental Army until the end of the war. These widows' provisions were abolished in 1794. Revolutionary soldiers in need (presumably, widowers were in this pool) were granted pensions in 1818; their widows, on proof of marriage, became eligible for pensions in 1832. Congress thereafter liberalized widows' Revolutionary War benefits.

See alsoDomestic Life; Inheritance; Marriage; Women: Rights .


Haber, Carole, and Brian Gratton. Old Age and the Search for Security: An American Social History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Mintz, Steven. Does the American Family Have a History? New York: Council of Contemporary Families, 2003.

Premo, Terri L. Winter Friends: Women Growing Old in the New Republic, 1785–1835. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

W. Andrew Achenbaum


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695. Widowhood

  1. Douglas, Widow adopted Huck Finn and took care of him. [Am. Lit.: Mark Twain Huckleberry Finn ]
  2. Gummidge, Mrs . a lone lorn creetur, the Pegottys house-keeper. [Br. Lit.: Dickens David Copperfield ]
  3. Old Wives Tale, The novel of two sisters widowed young, one by death, the other by desertion. [Br. Lit.: Magill I, 684]
  4. Wadman, Widow romantic neighbor who unsuccessfully lays siege to Uncle Tobys affections. [Br. Lit.: Tristram Shandy ; Magill I, 1027]
  5. widow of Ephesus weeping over her husbands corpse, she is cheered by a compassionate sentry and they become ardent lovers in the burial vault. [Rom. Lit.: Satyricon ]
  6. Wife of Bath, the kept her five successive husbands under her thumb by trickery. [Br. Lit.: Chaucer Canterbury Tales ]