Counseling Widows: Tips for Serving Customers at a Difficult Time


Attract and serve clients through their different life journeys

By 2030, female investors could own around $ 30 trillion in assets as baby boomer women outlive their spouses. For advisers, this transfer of wealth could portend a great opportunity … or a great risk. Much will depend on how financial professionals deal with the acute needs of newly widowed women.

If history is a guide, there is room for improvement. Seventy percent of women leave their financial advisers within the first year of their spouse’s death, a clear indicator that they feel underserved during widowhood.

The key to improving service during this difficult phase of life is patience above all else, said Heather Ettinger, CEO of Luma Wealth Advisors and author of the book, Lumination: Shedding light on a woman’s journey to financial well-being.

“You should only work in this space if you are patient and understand that there will be times when you have to repeat yourself 6 to 8 times before they feel comfortable,” Ettinger said.

Her remarks were made on the Retirement Repair Shop podcast, hosted by Transamerica and InvestmentNews, to help advisors better appreciate the unique needs of newly widowed clients, a difficult phase of life experienced by about 80% of women.

Ettinger is no stranger to serving women who experience it. She built her practice over 20 years ago, focusing on client service and the unique challenges they face. When serving widows, Ettinger said it’s important for counselors to understand that their clients’ memory will not function normally when they are first placed in this vulnerable position.

“We have to be aware that when she loses her spouse for the first time, all of the short-term memory goes away, so it’s important, first of all, to be patient,” Ettinger said. “Second, know that she needs a trusted friend or family member to join her for these meetings. [with an adviser] because during the grieving period it will be very difficult for him to form new relationships with a counselor or to absorb a huge amount of information.

The two paths of widowhood

When women experience widowhood, they usually follow one of two paths, Ettinger said. Some women will be “doers”. They will want to continue to get things done and tick things off a list to delay grieving.

“It’s really important that [an adviser] helps her check things off the list, but they should also realize that in four to six months she’s probably going to derail as she begins to deal with her grief, ”Ettinger said.

The second track is experienced by widows who have not been so involved in financial matters. These widows go through grief and at the same time try to learn about finances. For this client, Ettinger said it’s crucial for a friend or family member to attend her meetings, as it will be difficult to integrate new concepts and move forward at the pace she likely needs.

First up: a list of financial tasks for widowers

For a woman in a widowhood situation, there are suddenly a lot of financial problems on her plate. A to-do list can help them stay focused and feel confident that progress is being made. Ettinger’s firm is developing a visual transition plan for its clients. The plan includes a list of what needs to be done, prioritized. The plan also specifies whether the task can be delegated to a counselor or a family member and an updated status for that task.

Some of the first things to prioritize include determining how many death certificates the family needs, then ranking them and updating beneficiary designations. It is also important to know where the financial assets are located, to contact the spouse’s employer to find out what benefits may be due, and to contact the social security office.

“Make sure someone is on that call with her so that you understand what your options are for claiming the benefits,” Ettinger advised.

Larger-scale planning elements, such as changes to an investment portfolio, decisions about what to do with a home, or optimizing a tax strategy, can wait. The same goes for decisions about charitable giving and large donations to family members. Some of these things are best decided once the customer has a clearer picture of their benefits and what short-term cash flow looks like.

“Give yourself some space to wait for these big, important decisions,” Ettinger said.

She recounted once telling a client not to buy a house in the town she moved to after her partner died. The client chose to rent instead. This turned out to be fortuitous as the neighborhood was not so friendly for single women. The client eventually found a different neighborhood that was much more compatible, and the widow bought a house there instead.

“Nothing makes me happier about her situation than seeing her on social media with her friends in the new community she lives in,” Ettinger said.

Think about the little things

When helping a client get through something as difficult as widowhood, small things can do a lot of good. Ettinger’s office helps clients go through the post. This not only prevents potential fraud by seniors, but it can also reveal useful material to an advisor. For example, after going through a client’s mail for three hours, Ettinger found something about a substantial amount of stock options that would have expired had she not filed.

Last year, when customers were unable to meet for events such as holiday season due to COVID restrictions, Ettinger’s company hosted a Christmas party on Zoom and reached out to them. family members of widowed clients to get them to help that client get online. festivities. She also prepared a counselor team cookbook and sent it to widows.

Celebrating the person she lost is also important. “Be absolutely aware of their birthday, date of birth and date of death and make sure someone from your team contacts you on those days,” she said.

By showing more awareness – and more patience – advisors will be better equipped to serve newly widowed clients. As $ 30 trillion in wealth passes into the hands of female investors over the next decade, this may prove absolutely critical to their practice.

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