Six Recommendations for Working with Widows

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Kathleen M. Rehl

Widows are a fast-growing segment of the U.S. population, with almost 12 million women currently widowed and another 800,000 joining their ranks each year. Working with a widow, especially in the early stages of her grief, requires a non-traditional approach to financial advising.

It’s reported that 70% of widows change advisors after their spouse dies. Often this is because their prior advisors didn’t understand them. Widows regularly tell me that their financial advisors didn’t pay much attention to them.

“Mostly my advisor just focused on my husband,” I’ve been told. “Those quarterly investment reports never made much sense to me. I didn’t care if I was beating the market or not. I just wanted to know I had enough. And when I cried in his office, he really didn’t know what to do with me. I just wasn’t comfortable working with him anymore. So I left.”

Recommendations for planners

As someone whose husband died six years ago, and as a financial planner whose practice includes many widows, I’ve learned there are six key guidelines for successfully working with female clients after the death of a spouse:

  1. Listen to her story and talk less. Ask questions. Be an active listener. A good starting point is, “How have these past weeks been for you?”Begin there, rather than jumping right to the investment portfolio. Speak her husband’s name and encourage her to share memories. We widows don’t want the world to forget our husband. It’s okay if she cries, because these will be healing tears.
  2. Become her new “thinking partner,” so that she trusts that you understand her emotional state. A widow’s “brain freeze” is very real in the early phases of her grief. She will hear your words but not necessarily understand or remember what you say. Even women with advanced academic degrees have problems reading their brokerage statement or balancing a checkbook.Provide a written summary of your meetings, noting action items for you and her. This is especially important during a widow’s stressful transition period when she is often highly forgetful.
  3. Encourage her to take her time with decisions that don’t need immediate attention. Of course, the funeral happens soon. But she doesn’t need to rebalance her portfolio instantly. If she talks about paying off her home mortgage with life insurance proceeds right away, suggest that she temporarily park this money in a secure money market-type account until she has time to think through her options for this money, which she may need for living expenses.