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Why widows ditch their advisers

Advisers to surviving spouses must acknowledge the ‘elephant in the room'

May 9, 2012 @ 4:14 pm

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Conventional wisdom holds that most women fire their financial adviser within three years of becoming a widow.

Amy Florian, chief executive of bereavement counselor Corgenius Inc., knows why.

“The adviser didn't ask me about what I was going through,” she said of the first adviser she hired to manage life insurance proceeds shortly after she became a widow and single mother of an infant at 25. “I ended up switching to an adviser who treated me like a person instead of a number.”

At a Wednesday session of the NAPFA National Conference in Chicago, Ms. Florian shared details of her experience and the thoughts of other widows with whom she has worked.

The most important thing to remember when working with a client who has lost a loved one is to acknowledge what she called the “elephant in the room.”

“Ask if they would like to tell you what happened,” Ms. Florian said. If the person wants to talk, take the time to listen. Minimize the number of decisions they must make early on, and help them get control of their financial fears by asking them to write them down. Then offer to help solve them, she said.

One tip: if a grieving client begins to cry, don't offer her a tissue or hold a tissue box up to her, Ms. Florian said. “In widow support groups, we call that the ‘shut up box,'” Ms. Florian said.

Instead, she said advisers should make it a practice always to have a box of tissues in a handy spot within easy reach of any client who might find themselves tearing up, but don't make a show of offering it to her. Drawing attention to the fact that a client is crying sends an unspoken message that the adviser is uncomfortable and wishes she would stop, Ms. Florian said.

Among widows with whom she has worked, running out of money is the most common fear, even in cases where that is not a realistic concern.

Ask widows to write down their biggest fears in a notebook you provide, and explain how you plan to address those fears, she said.

“Logic doesn't work in those cases,” she said. “Writing down the fears takes away their power.”

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