A widow finds strength in numbers

Dorie Fain
Dorie Fain is the founder and CEO of &Wealth, a boutique financial advisory firm dedicated to helping women who are recreating their lives, with offices in New York City and Baltimore.

Published 8/5/2016 in The Maryland Daily Record

CPAs, estate attorneys, advisors — there are no technical details that escape us. This is why clients rely on us. So when we have worked with a couple for years and the husband, who has been the primary contact, dies, our focus shifts to how will we can best help his grieving wife.

It was her husband who hired us and worked directly with us on every detail of their tax, legal and financial situation. She is still grieving months after his death, making it difficult to engage in the decision-making that is needed to move forward.

She’s starting over, and in a sense, so are we. New life, new working relationship, new strategy, new decision-maker who responds in a very different way than her husband had. She comes bearing questions that would take more than a photographic memory of tax code to answer, lifestyle questions disguised as financial questions related to housing, charitable giving, spending on children and grandchildren.

We answer as many we can. But answers lead to more uncertainty. Months go by. When will she be ready? We don’t want to rush her, but we need decisions before we can move forward with any of our planning and projections.

More than 44 percent of women over age 65 are widows, and the average widow outlives her husband by 14 years. Traditionally, the decisions have been made by men. Only 48 percent of couples that work with financial advisors make retirement decisions jointly. A widow often finds herself in a new world where she doesn’t speak the language. Perhaps that’s why more than 70 percent of women who lose their husbands switch advisors within one year.

But, like many who lose a spouse, women often need time and space to process the impact and to allow the emotional fog to clear a bit before feeling ready to make any big decisions. Often, the professionals that had worked with her husband so well are not the ideal fit for this woman, who needs a different approach that feels less transactional. In other words, she needs professionals with lots of patience and a genuine willingness to explain things in plain English in order to feel fully capable of handling this new responsibility.

The right match

Despite her reluctance to leave the brokers, lawyers, or accountants who had served her husband for so many years, it can be helpful to interview different advisors who may be a better match with her style and desire to have more of a consultative approach to this process.

However, it isn’t always easy to find that right match. Some advisors come prepared with recommendations for complex financial products and spend hours explaining what the client should do next. They talk, she listens.

Other advisors launch right into a fact-finding mission, gathering data to plug into numerous financial models and estimates. The widow isn’t often prepared with all the information needed and tends to feel overwhelmed.

Ideally, advisors are spending most of the session listening and asking unrushed, open-ended questions about the client — lifestyle, community, connections with family and friends, values, hopes for the future — emphasizing the importance of a plan customized to her priorities. The focus should be on making sure she feels heard and understood, knowing that products and planning will surely follow.

The first objective is to restore a sense of clarity and order so that she can make financial decisions with context and real life information that relates to her personal situation. It is critical to explain financial topics in plain English so that she can understand what it means for her and that she feels she is on equal footing with the advisor. Don’t rush her into making decisions – there is no set timeframe with grief, and we have to remain aware of the complexity of how people grieve differently.

While no single person reacts the same in the wake of a loss, over the many years of working with women during these life transitions, widows often have a similar set of fears, feelings and professional needs. My hope is that each of us continue to do better to meet these clients where they are and provide the professional support that can really make a world of difference at such an important time in our client’s lives.

Dorie Fain, founder and CEO of &Wealth