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How to talk to clients who have just been widowed

70% of widows leave their advisers after their spouse dies, so here's advice to maintain these relationships

May 15, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

By Kathleen M. Rehl

The husband of Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and best-selling author of "Lean In," died accidentally on a family vacation. Like Ms. Sandberg, I am a widow. We widows learn to lean into a new life and chart a course for changes we didn't ask for, want, or expect. Even though I was a financial adviser when my husband died, I wasn't ready for widowhood. Most women aren't.

One of the hardest parts for many widows is coping with money issues during the early stages of crushing grief — neither their heads or their hearts can make important decisions. This is especially true when death comes unexpectedly.

About 70% of widows leave their advisers after their spouse dies. But if a widow feels you understand her and what she needs, she'll stay. Do this right, and you'll also attract other widowed clients.

(Related read: Advisers need to be nurturers when helping a woman through life changes)

COMMUNICATE WITH EMPATHY

Forget clichés. They aren't helpful to widows who are navigating their darkest passage. The emotional pain can be excruciating.

Don't say:

• “You have my deepest sympathy. I know what you're going though.”

• “I read a great book about overcoming hard times. I'll send it to you.”

• “I'm sorry about all this. We'll get started on paperwork right away, and you can sign account changes soon.”

• “At least you have your children.”

Rather, try saying:

• “When I heard about [spouse's name]'s sudden death, I was shocked. I didn't know what to say to ease your pain. How have these past days been?”

• “I'm here for you. There's nothing you have to do immediately about your accounts. Just take care of yourself, and let your family and friends step up. They love you. How about if I call you [set a date] and we'll talk more then?"

• Share a memory of your client's husband. We widows don't want the world to forget our spouses. These stories help keep his memory alive.

FOCUS ON FINANCIAL TRIAGE

A new widow in the first stage of widowhood is highly stressed. Often she'll say she “feels numb,” “in a fog,” or like she's “going crazy.” As a grieving spouse, she needs to be heard and understood. She wants to feel safe.

Don't encourage a new widow to make major, irrevocable decisions like moving to a new home. Even if she's been a take-charge woman, she will need to slow the pace. Transition specialist Susan Bradley of Sudden Money Institute refers to this as the “decision-free zone.” It's not a no-decision zone, as you focus on financial matters that need to be addressed immediately or very soon. Delay other matters such as rebalancing the widow's portfolio until later, when your client's thinking normalizes.

Check her cash flow. Be sure bills are paid and insurance is in force.

Assist in applying for death benefits, but don't invest new money immediately. Park life insurance proceeds in a safe account until new goals are set. Help her guard against well-meaning friends with hot investment tips.

(More: Why widows ditch their advisers)

BE HER THINKING PARTNER

You're with your widowed client for the long haul because you care. You're not there to tell her what to do. You'll help make decisions that are right for her and the family. She used to do that with her husband, but now she needs your wise assistance in moving forward.

It may be up to a year or so before a widow transitions from grief, to growth, and finally to transformation. If the death was unexpected, this process often takes longer than it does for those who had time to anticipate their loss and plan accordingly.

In the later stages of widowhood, you'll assist with general planning including repositioning investment portfolios, making career or postretirement decisions, education planning, and housing issues. This is when you'll help with advanced estate planning issues. Possibly you'll do philanthropic planning if relevant.

Kathleen M. Rehl is a speaker, author and mentor specializing in helping advisers work effectively with widows. You can also download her free eBooklet, "Financial Steps for Recent Widows," for more on this topic.

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