Patience is key when working with widows

Oct 2, 2011 @ 12:01 am

An old college buddy called recently and said that he was flying in from Los Angeles and wanted to get together for beers and to reminisce about our days at New York University.

When we met, however, the conversation quickly switched from the good old days to the problems he was having with his recently widowed mother.

She was having a difficult time dealing with the loss of her husband of 55 years. Besides the emotional stress, she was overwhelmed by her new financial responsibilities, and to make matters more complicated, she wanted to fire the financial adviser who had been helping her and her husband for the past 15 years.

My friend's mom felt that her adviser was impatient when she called with questions and thought that he didn't respect her opinion, because she was never included in financial discussions while her husband was alive.

His mom also was angry because the adviser insisted that she sell some stocks that he thought were underperforming. Those shares, however, were purchased by her husband, and she made it quite clear that there was no way that she was going to sell them.

My friend's mother was behaving like many recent widows, about 70% of whom fire their advisers within a year of their husband's death, according to many studies.

For some perspective on this issue, I called Kathleen Rehl, owner of Rehl Financial Advisors, where more than 25% of clients are widows.

She said that widows leave advisers because of common missteps made during the relationship.

One of these is ignoring the reality that working with widows takes time.

“Advisers are often coached to be more efficient in their client work. Generally, that makes sense — so they can see more clients in less time,” Ms. Rehl said.”But with widows, a financial planner will spend more time.”

During that time, the adviser must listen intently to what the widow is saying directly and indirectly.

Often, an adviser may not talk about the deceased husband, fearing that this will upset the widow. But that isn't always the case.

“We widows don't want our husbands to be forgotten,” said Ms. Rehl, who herself is a widow.

I asked her what advisers can do to prevent the all-too-frequent disconnect with widows.

“Some of my widowed clients said they felt "left out' or "not really involved' with planning work done with a financial adviser,” Ms. Rehl said. Some said that although they accompanied their husbands to the initial financial planning meeting, they weren't really part of the continuing process.

“As advisers, we must be aware of ways to keep both spouses involved in the planning process,” Ms. Rehl said.

I asked about what advisers should do when working with widows.

Ms. Rehl said that with the death of a husband, a widow no longer has a primary partner with whom to discuss financial matters, bounce around money ideas or talk intimately about money issues. That trusting relationship is gone, and it leaves a huge void.

In general, these women aren't interested in beating the market, Ms. Rehl said.

“They want to know how to be financially secure and safe, how to have enough money for retirement and whether they'll be able to financially assist their kids and/or grandkids,” she said. “They will be helped by answers, education and advice much more than by charts and numbers, which simply overwhelm them.”

She also pointed out that a widow may want to bring a family member or friend to the meetings — something she encourages.

“Treat a new widow right, and she will sing your praises high in years to come when she's helping to guide other newly widowed friends,” Ms. Rehl said.

Jim Pavia is the editor of InvestmentNews.

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