As powerful as women have become in past years they are still in the dark on key aspects about their retirement finances.  Women’s responsibilities differ from family to family.  While many women take care of everyday household bills and know the big financial picture they leave the details of their retirement planning to the men.  Because women often outlive men the lack of knowledge comes back to haunt them.

Women need to ask questions now so that their are no unnecessary surprises when their spouse dies.  They need to make themselves aware of pension benefits, life insurance, debts and investment accounts.  These things are important so that she doesn’t miss out on opportunities such as bigger social security benefits or health care options.  It’s also very important women to understand what her assets and liabilities are.  Check out the article from WSJ.com for more helpful information.

It’s an unfortunate reality that, even in today’s world, many women are in the dark about key aspects of their retirement finances.

Of course, each spouse’s roles and responsibilities differ from family to family.   The wife may handle the household bills and know the big financial picture.   But frequently, the husband is the one who knows—and keeps to himself—the details of a couple’s retirement planning.

If a wife outlives her husband—as often happens—that lack of knowledge can come back to haunt her later in life.

She could, for instance, miss out on bigger Social Security benefits, or find her health-care options limited when she is no longer able to manage on her own.   As such, wives need to ask questions about pension benefits and life insurance, debts and investment accounts.   The goal: to avoid unnecessary surprises at the already difficult moment of losing a spouse.

“It’s still a prevalent problem with a lot of couples who come in, that one person has handled the finances for years,” says Clarissa Hobson, a financial planner in Colorado Springs, Colo. ”  And in most cases it’s the husband.”

As a result, Ms. Hobson says, a common refrain from the wife is, “If something happens to my husband, what on earth am I going to do?”

Life expectancies tell much of the story.   A 60-year-old woman today can, on average, expect to live until just over age 86; a 60-year-old man can expect to live to 83½, according to data from the Social Security Administration.

But perhaps a more eye-opening statistic is that in 2009, 51% of women age 70 or older had been widowed, according to the Census Bureau, compared with 23% for men.

Meanwhile, women tend to accumulate less in retirement savings.

“Women are more likely to have their careers interrupted for caregiving, either for children or for elderly parents,” says Eve Kaplan, a financial planner in Berkeley Heights, N.J.

That shortfall can be compounded by salary inequalities between men and women.   Not only do women often earn less than men in the same job, she says, they tend to congregate in lower-paying fields.

One of the most important conversations between a husband and wife needs to take place before retirement: deciding when each spouse is going to start collecting Social Security benefits.

The reason is simple, even if the decision is complex: When one spouse dies, a survivor who is at least full retirement age can receive the deceased’s full benefit if it is higher than his or her own.

Meanwhile, the monthly payout for any Social Security recipient depends on the age at which he or she starts collecting.   The longer a person waits—up until age 70—the higher the payout.   And with men tending to be the higher wage-earner, the longer the husband delays taking benefits, the greater the wife’s survivor benefit.

“The biggest mistake I see is people claiming Social Security at age 62,” says Ms. Hobson. By doing so, “you’re locking in your widow” at lower benefits, she says.

Some conversations may be uncomfortable, such as addressing the full scope of the couple’s debts.   And even if the wife isn’t involved in investment decisions, she needs to know where the accounts are.

“It’s really important that people understand what their assets and liabilities are,” says Heather Locus, a financial planner in Itasca, Ill.

One detail that often comes up is whose name is on the credit cards, Ms. Hobson says.   If all of the credit cards are in the deceased husband’s name, the surviving spouse will have to get her own credit card, and that could be challenging for a retiree.   “It isn’t easy to get a new credit card if you don’t have a history and income,” she says.

Other critical questions are: If there’s a pension, what, if any, survivor benefits will there be?   How much is there in life insurance?   If there was a previous marriage, has the beneficiary been changed?   What plans are in place for paying for long-term care such as a nursing home?

“Women may live longer than men, but they may have more long-term health-care needs,” says Ms. Kaplan.

Advisers say for many women it’s a matter of getting over a fear of having conversations about the couple’s financial plans.

“Financial planning isn’t rocket science,” says Ms. Hobson. “It’s an educational process for everyone,” she says.

Basically women need to be informed to protect themselves but also to make sure that they are not missing out on benefits that they could be entitled to from their spouse.  Women’s careers are often interrupted for care giving either for children or parents meaning that they accumulate less in retirement savings.  Women also tend to work in lower paying fields.  Financial planning can be complex but it should be an educational process for everyone.

About jshaw