What’s the Proper Way to Address a Widow—Miss, Ms., or Mrs.?

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Whether you’re speaking to her in person or sending her an event invitation, it’s important to be respectful when you’re addressing a widow. 

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She might have lost her spouse recently, or it might have happened many years ago. Either way, she’ll appreciate that you thought about how she might want you to address her. And it’s always best to follow the proper etiquette when doing so. 

So what’s the correct way to address a widow? Does it change based on the widow’s age or your relationship with her? We’ll go over the basics of addressing a woman whose spouse is no longer living, below. 

Should You Use Mrs. Ms., or Miss to Address a Widow?

There are three basic prefixes you can use when addressing the women in your life: Mrs., Ms., and Miss. The prefix you choose when you’re speaking to a widow depends on several factors. Here are some of the scenarios and situations to consider. 

Mrs. (most common)

Most of the time, you should use the honorific, “Mrs.” (missus), when you’re addressing a widow. Use the prefix “Mrs.” and the woman’s married name, if she changed her last name to her spouse’s. 

Of course, use the woman’s maiden name if you know she’s changed her name back. Most often, however, you should go with the same name she went by when her spouse was alive. 

Ms. (less common)

A widow might also go by “Ms.” if it’s been many years since her spouse passed away. If so, she might also change her last name back to her maiden name. However, as mentioned, “Mrs.” is much more common, and a widow normally keeps her married name. “Ms.” much more commonly refers to a woman who’s divorced, so a widow might find offense in it if you’re not careful. 

If you’re not sure whether a widow wants to go by “Ms.” or “Mrs.,” it’s a safe bet to go with “Mrs.” You can also ask her what she goes by. 

Miss (rare)

Few widows go by “Miss,” but it’s not unheard of. A very young widow (a woman in her 20s, for example) might choose to go by “Miss” and her married or maiden name, depending on how long she was married to the deceased. 

The prefix “Miss” normally applies to women who have never been married, so again, it’s safer to go with “Mrs.” if you’re unsure. 

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Other Ways You Can Address a Widow If You’re Unsure

It’s usually safe to go with “Mrs.” when you’re addressing a widow, and you’re not sure what she prefers. But if you’d rather go with another prefix or address the widow in your life in another way, consider the options below. 

1. First name

If you’re close to her, you can always address a widow by her first name. Alternatively, you can use her first and last name.

This is acceptable whether you’re addressing her in person, or writing her a card such as a sympathy card. And in this situation, continuing to address your friend or family member by her first name as you usually would is the best choice. 

2. Title

If you’re addressing a widow in your work or professional life, you can use her professional title. You can even use a title if you’re addressing a more distant family member or family friend. 

Examples of titles include Professor, Doctor, Sister, General, Director, and President. Pair her title with her married last name unless you’re 100% sure her last name has changed since the passing of her spouse. 

3. Her spouse’s name

Some women use the old-fashioned convention of their husband’s first name and last name plus the prefix “Mrs.” For example, a woman might go by “Mrs. John Doe” rather than just “Mrs. Doe” or “Mrs. Jane Doe” (using her own first name). 

If you’re aware that the woman used this convention, it’s appropriate to continue addressing her that way even after her husband passes away. However, it’s also appropriate to go with simply “Mrs. Doe,” if you’re unsure. 

4. First name and maiden name

What about for a widow who never used her spouse’s last name? In this situation, you should continue to address the widow by the name she’s always used. 

Use her first name and her maiden name plus either Ms. or Mrs., depending on which she prefers. As mentioned, it’s usually best to go with “Mrs.” if you’re not sure. 

5. Spouse’s title

If the widow’s husband held an important title in the community, she might have used an address based on his position. For example, a president’s wife is known as the First Lady. 

If her husband passes away, you should continue to address her as the First Lady. In addressing a letter or card, write, “First Lady (married last name). Of course, this is a very specific example, but many women use titles associated with their husbands’ positions. These include the spouses of elected officials, church officials, and some armed forces officials. 

6. Nicknames and family names 

Finally, in informal settings, you can address a widow by a nickname or family name you might have for her. For example, you might call your best friend by an affectionate nickname. And using terms of endearment can be a useful way to help a grieving friend. Of course, this wouldn’t be appropriate if you’re writing her name on an envelope, but you can still use it in a private message or in person. 

And if you’re addressing a letter to a family member who’s a widow, you can use her family name in place of “Mrs.,” “Ms.,” or “Miss.” For example, if you’re sending an aunt a letter, you can address it to “Aunt Doe.” If you’re writing to a cousin whose spouse passed away, you can address it to “Cousin Doe.” 

How to Address a Widow

Whether you’re addressing a widow in person or addressing a sympathy letter to say “sorry for your loss,” it’s important to address her properly. But luckily, most widows understand that doing this can be challenging. Chances are, they won’t hold it against you if you slip up.

And if you’re at a complete loss for how to address the widow in your life, your best choice might be to simply ask her. Especially if she’s your close friend or family member, it’s all right to let her know you’re unsure how to approach the situation. You can ask how she’d like to be addressed, or inquire about whether she’s changing her name or prefix in any way. 

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