The death of a spouse inevitably brings major changes in the life of the surviving partner — not least of which is dealing with loss, grief, and a future that is irrevocably changed.
Yet while many couples have duly prepared for the economic impacts of death, taking proactive steps to proactively settle financial affairs and estate planning issues, few anticipate a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common: widows who eventually part ways with the couple’s financial advisor.
While few women seek a new financial advisor before the death of their spouse, over 70% do in the aftermath of the funeral — though they may wait to take action for several months, or even several years.
Why a Change of Heart?
What remains the reason for this financial change of heart? Wealth management professionals point to an unbalanced advisor-client relationship as one culprit. When financial advisors neglect the relationship with one-half of the couple — usually, but not always, the wife — the professional relationship is less likely to survive in the event of the husband’s death. (For more, see: How Women in Transition Should Mind Their Finances.)
For advisors who haven’t been mindful of cultivating a relationship with both halves a couple, the disparity isn’t necessarily intentional. It’s often a default situation that arises when the advisor is male, and the husband happens to be the more financially savvy, confidant, or interested partner of the couple.
Confidence, of course, doesn’t necessarily equate with actual expertise: it often comes down to sheer perception. A recent survey by Fidelity Investments showed that men more likely to have faith in their abilities as financial decision makers than are women. Wives, too, reported greater faith in their husbands’ abilities than in their own. (For more, see: The Unique Ways Women Approach Finance.)
A Question of Confidence
Yet when it comes to actual savvy on the stock market? It turns out that confidence doesn’t accurately predict return on investment: women tend to exhibit more solid investment strategies. One example of the female tendency towards better long-term planning was in the 2008 economic crisis, when women tended to hold on to their stocks and ride out the storm rather than selling them based on the short-term downturns in performance. (For more, see: What Women Investors are Doing Right.)
Such perceptions — whether accurate or not — impact the relationships that clients develop with their financial advisors. Higher self-confidence when it comes to finances increases the chance that the husband will be the primary contact with a couple’s financial advisor.
The consequences of this type of one-sided, or imbalanced, relationship may not come to fruition until the female spouse finds herself facing financial decisions alone. At this point, many advisors seek to more actively court the surviving spouse’s interests — but only with limited success if the relationship hasn’t been nurtured prior to widowhood. (For more, see: What Women Want from a Financial Advisor.)
Some experts in the field suggest that an up-front time investment in both halves of the couple is essential for advisors who hope to keep their female clients loyal, even after the loss of a spouse. Of course, that’s not to say that it’s an easy matter to engage clients — whether male or female — who lack interest or knowledge in their financial affairs. In this case, it’s crucial to make the client feel comfortable and able to ask questions: advisors should be willing to provide basic, nuts-and-bolts financial advice to the surviving spouse. Such knowledge is essential to empower financial neophytes — or those who simply lack confidence — to make well-informed decisions solo, rather than as a couple.
One tip for financial advisors? Don’t meet with clients alone (sans spouse): suggest that an important part of the process is to engage both individuals in goal setting and planning. It’s helpful for couples to have a chance to articulate not only their objectives, plans and dreams as a couple, but as separate individuals. [For more, see: How Financial Advisors Fail Women (And What Women Can Do About It).]
The Bottom Line
Proactive relationship-building with both halves of a couple is key for maintaining a healthy advisor-client relationship with two individuals who share common interests but whose views may differ widely on financial decision making. Ultimately, women who feel that their advisor has neglected to seek out her concerns and opinions while their spouse is alive are the most likely to terminate the client-advisor relationship after their spouse’s death. If you’re an advisor, don’t make the fatal mistake of assuming the female half of a couple is a mirror image of her husband’s financial views. Even if the couple’s views remain fairly similar during the marriage, the fact that women tend to outlive their husbands by nearly a decade and a half means that their financial outlook may change significantly over time. (For related reading, see: How do Social Security Benefits for Widows or Widowers Work?)