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Addressing a Widow

How do you address a widow? I recently sent a note of condolence to a woman whose husband had died. Because I didn’t know her well, I guessed about how to address the envelope. I used this style:

Ms. Grace Tomlinson

When she wrote back to thank me, I noticed her return address. She called herself:

Mrs. Ralph Tomlinson

When I write to her again, I will address her envelope “Mrs. Ralph Tomlinson” since that is her preference.

At work, a woman rarely uses her husband’s first name to identify herself. However, if you write to donors, constituents, members, patients, or customers, pay attention to the way they refer to themselves. At the beginning of your relationship with them, you can ask them about their preference for the title Miss, Ms., or Mrs. and other details of their name. If a woman uses her husband’s name, write to her that way even if he dies. When and if she decides to stop using his name, you can follow her lead.

Generally speaking the most common way tends to be Mrs. (missus) followed by the woman’s married name (if she did in fact change her last name to her spouse’s). Ms. is less common, but might be the case if it’s been many years since her spouse’s passing.  However, Ms.  is often used for divorcees, so a widow might find this offensive if you are not careful.

For other posts I have written about condolences, read on from here down.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

16 comments on “Addressing a Widow”

  • Your answer/comments re: ‘salutations’ to a widow fail to answer the central/crucial question: what is the PROPER way(s) to address a widowed woman?

    This is particularly relevant when, for example, one does NOT know or has NOT had the opportunity to ask her directly/beforehand.

    In other words, what if one is writing to a person one knows is a widow but whom one has never met and never expects to meet?


  • Lewis, you would write to the widow the same way I did, as you would write to any woman about whose preferences you know nothing:

    Ms. Ima Widow

    I strive to avoid negative language such as “your comments fail,” which only engenders more negativity.


  • You’re right; I apologize for the negative overtone; I was writing in a hurry and I assumed it would be treated as a direct email to the original poster [you] as opposed to a post itself.

    I also meant to clarify that the context of my question related more to the following scenario in which I was [or one is] writing to a third party about the/a widow and was thus referring to her in the third person. Specifically, I was writing to opposing counsel in a case, in which the widow is the defendant, and so I was uncertain about whether to use “Mrs.” or “Ms.”.

    Finally, I assume, then, it’s fair to say there is no one correct way of addressing such an individual in general – i.e. that “Ms.” is correct until or unless one is informed otherwise, at which time one is still free to utilize “Ms.”, even at the risk of offending the individual, no? Again, I use the example of an adverse party in a legal proceeding, whom I do not mind – and in fact would prefer – offending. But I at least wish to be grammatically correct in/when doing so 🙂

    Thanks again,


  • Lewis, I have one worry: If Ms. Smith prefers to be addressed as “Mrs. Smith” and her attorney calls her “Mrs. Smith,” then would your use of “Ms. Smith,” cause people to ask whether you are referring to “Mrs. Smith”?

    I have never worked in a profession in which offending was a preferred behavior, so my expertise is limited.

    Best wishes,


  • The correct etiquette (at least for the UK) is to address a widow as, for example, Mrs John Doe. If, however, she has a son named John Doe in her household then she should be addressed as either Mrs John Doe Senior or simply as Mrs Doe. Of course, it is acceptable to respect a person’s personal preference with regard to addressing but the aforementioned rule should be applied in the first instance.

  • I stumbled upon this ages after it was posted, but I felt the need to comment because there is information missing.
    In non-business writing, the proper etiquette is to use Mrs. John Smith, not Mrs. Jane Smith. This is because technically, Mrs. Jane Smith indicates a woman who has divorced but kept her husband’s last name. Mrs. John Smith indicates a married woman or a widow.
    Now, this is a distinction that is fast falling out of usage, so take it with a grain of salt. Sometimes rules change, but there are still older (and generally high-income) women who take this very seriously. If it is at all possible to learn how she prefers to be addressed, try your hardest to find out. If it’s not possible, you’ll have to use your judgment based on demographics and whatever data you have.
    I work in nonprofit and have a great many high-income and/or highly educated constituents, a fair share of whom are elderly. If you address a 90 year old woman who takes etiquette seriously as Mrs. Jane Smith rather than Mrs. John Smith, she will notice and she won’t be pleased. My judicious adherence to this old-fashioned rule has created a favorable impression on many occasions, especially since I work for an elite boarding school and higher standards are expected of my correspondence.

  • The proper condolensces are hard to create upon the death of a family member sometimes…wish there was a “pat” condolense letter that could be standardized for most occasions.

  • What if it has been a considerable amount of time (three years) since the husband has passed on? I want to invite my mother’s friend to my wedding but am not sure if I should still address her as Mrs. Steve XXXXX.

  • I am reconstructing a classroom for a long-time famous teacher in our old hometown historial museum in the area where she taught school for over 40 years..both single and then married. She died at 101, and was always known as Mrs. Kay Smith to all students and everyone she knew. Now, I’m being told that is incorrect, and the classroom should be called Mrs. John Smith’s Classroom because she never divorced. I did her eulogy and she even was referred to as Mrs. Kay Smith on her obit and funeral program. How should I address this issue or say to these “people” that think I’m doing it politically incorrect? I know one thing and that is in this day, if Mrs. Smith wanted to get a plane ticket to travel or a passport, she would never get it as Mrs. John Smith in this day and age. Thanks for your help.

  • Hi, Bilena. As you know, I sent you a private email a few days ago. But I wanted to respond here too.

    People have no business changing Mrs. Kay Smith’s name. If she was Mrs. Kay Smith in life, she should be called that beyond this life. Any other choice is disrespectful.


  • The marriage vows indicate that death ends the marriage…”till death do we part”. The surviving partner is not married any longer and is single. I also believe that is the legal position. It would appear that Ms.Ima Widow would be preferable usage to Mrs. Tom Widow. Tom is dead. The “wife” should take her new place in her own right in the ongoing world she is now part of.

  • I became a widow in November of 2008. I am a 44 year old professional woman and am a single mother of 2 teenage daugters. I agree wit Ohle completely! I am not Mrs. Jon Doe- he is dead and has been for 2 years- I do not want to be addressed by his name. I do not find Mrs. Jane Doe offensive, but I do find Mrs. Jon Doe offensive as it places my identity on a person that is dead and somehow says that alive Jane is less vauluable than dead Jon. I introduce myself as Ms. Jane Doe and would have gone back to my maiden name but my professional certifications, degrees, and children all have this surname and I have been Jane Doe longer than I was my maiden name. I say if in doubt just write Jane Doe.

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