Many of us are uncomfortable with the idea of death, so it’s not surprising that financial advisors are often ill-equipped to work with widows.
“It takes emotional intelligence to work effectively with widows,” says Kathleen Rehl, president of Rehl Wealth Collaborations LLC in Land O’Lakes, Fla. “You have to move slowly, particularly in the first year of widowhood, when widows are often overwhelmed with grief and worry.”
Because new widows are emotionally fragile, they need advisors who understand them. And those who do understand widows will have a significant opportunity; an estimated 70% of all wives will experience widowhood. The average age at which U.S. women are widowed is only 59.4 years. And since women, on average, live into their 80s, large numbers of them will be responsible for their own finances for many years.
With that in mind, here are some tips for working effectively with widows:
> Take it slow
As much as possible, early widowhood should be a “decision-free zone,” according to Rehl.
“Make sure the bills are paid,” Rehl says. “Apply for death benefits, collect life insurance and check the cash flow. But encourage your client to delay major decisions that don’t require immediate attention, such as paying off the mortgage, investing life insurance proceeds or rebalancing her portfolio.
“People think differently when they’re stressed,” Rehl adds, “and the death of a spouse is the greatest stressor of all.”
Tell your client to focus on family and self care in the early months, adds Rhonda Sherwood, a wealth advisor with Scotia McLeod Inc. In Vancouver. “Say, ‘There’s nothing we need to do with your accounts right now. Is it okay if I call you in a few weeks to see how you’re doing and maybe talk some more?”
> Watch what you say
Most people don’t know how to talk about death, and it’s easy to slip into clichés like, “At least you had all those years together,” or “At least he didn’t suffer.” Those are a real turn-off, Rehl says.
Instead say, “This must be a very difficult time for you and I want you to know I’m here for you.”
“Keep the focus on the widow,” Rehl says. “If you are a widow or widower, you can certainly say so. But don’t say, “I know just how you feel.” Remember: each widow’s journey is unique.”
Advisors need to listen more and talk less, Rehl says.
“Ask questions and listen with empathy,” she says. “Ask, ‘How have these past weeks been for you?’ instead of jumping right to the investment portfolio.”
Speak the husband’s name and encourage your client to share memories of him, Sherwood adds. And don’t worry if she cries; tears are a healthy and necessary part of the healing process.
> Offer reassurance
The greatest concern widows have is whether they’re going to be alright financially. Even multi-millionaires worry that they may become “bag ladies,” says Rehl, who knows firsthand. When Rehl’s husband died in 2007, she briefly feared becoming a bag lady herself, despite her financial expertise.
“A new widow is not interested in beating the market,” she says. “Her highest priority is to understand her current financial position and maintain a comfortable lifestyle.”
This is the first part in a two-part series on working with widows. Next: How to be an educator and a “thinking partner” for a grieving client.