Every year an estimated 70,000 Canadian women are widowed. For many, coping with the devastating emotional impact is just the beginning. They also need advice and support to restructure their financial lives. Unfortunately, the person best positioned to provide that help is often found wanting.
“70% of widows fire their financial advisor within three years of their husband’s death, usually because they didn’t have a relationship with the advisor beforehand,” says Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, principal of KBK Wealth Connection in Boston.
Women often complain that their advisors neglected them, says Kathleen Rehl, a Florida-based financial planner and author of Moving Forward On Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows.
Says Rehl: “Women say things like, ‘The advisor never paid much attention to me while my husband was alive, and after he died I wanted more than printed investment reports’. “
Rehl, who counsels widows and professionals who assist them, says many advisors don’t know how to talk to new widows.
“Some advisors are so afraid to upset [widowed clients] that they don’t mention the husband,” Rehl says. “It’s as if he never existed.”
Widows want to talk about their husbands, Kingsbury says, so give them the opportunity. But don’t say” “I’m sorry for your loss,” which makes her feel she has to reassure you. Try saying: “I can’t begin to understand your pain but I’m here to help in any way I can.”
If you knew them as a couple, reminisce a bit, Rehl suggests. “Mention him by name and say something like: ‘Bill loved you very much and he crafted a financial plan that left you in great shape.’ If you didn’t know them as a couple you could say, ‘I didn’t have privilege of knowing Bill. What would you like me to know about him?'”
The following are more tips for dealing with recent widows:
> Be a good communicator
Keep your focus on your client and listen more than you talk. Really hear what she’s saying and ask questions to draw her out, if necessary.
“Don’t use jargon,” Rehl says. “Many widows can’t process it.”
> Reassure her
Many new widows have “bag lady syndrome” and fear they’ll soon be out on the streets, Rehl says.
“That includes very smart women with lots of financial knowledge,” she adds. “They need reassurance that they’ll be okay financially.”
> Slow things down
New widows sometimes feel they should act quickly to tie up loose ends. Making decisions under such circumstances can be disastrous.
“Grief negatively impacts brain functioning,” Rehl says. “So major, irreversible decisions, such as selling the house or liquidating investments, should be delayed for six months to a year. Help her think about what must be done immediately and what can wait.”
If you hope to work successfully with widows, don’t rush, Rehl says. “Financial planners know how to fix things and they’re focused on efficiency,” she says. “But this isn’t about fixing [your client], it’s about helping her make decisions.”
> Educate your client
Part of an advisor’s function is to educate, and some widows, particularly older ones, need help. That means spending time getting them up to speed about what they need to know.
“Women want to be educated to make good decisions so they can depend on themselves,” Kingsbury says. “In addition to building their confidence, [educating clients] makes them incredibly loyal because you saw them through this difficult time.”