Op-ed: Recent widows need financial guidance after a spouse’s death

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You’ve experienced an incredible loss. Now it’s time to think about protecting your future.

Losing a spouse could be one of the most difficult things someone will ever face. However, despite the emotional hardship, a widow can emerge from the loss stronger than ever and more capable of managing their financial future.

It’s evident that money issues can be one of life’s biggest stressors — but it doesn’t have to be. Once you are ready to take control of your financial situation, there may be things you find you need more clarity and instructions on. There may be some bigger questions you have about your financial future, like how to make your money last.

You may also need help settling your spouse’s estate, transferring assets to your name, closing accounts, updating beneficiaries and planning for your future needs. For all of these questions, a financial advisor can help.

Various surveys show that nearly 80% of women will at some point become the sole financial decision-maker in their life. What’s more, many widows will spend several decades controlling their own finances.

To that point, half of all women who become widowed in the U.S. are under age 59. Since the average life expectancy for women is 79, that means those women often find themselves managing their finances by themselves for at least two decades.

While some women enjoy managing their finances on their own, others will prefer working with an advisor. For those seeking guidance on key issues like estate planning, tax planning and long-term financial planning and investing, it’s crucial to work with a financial advisor who understands your unique needs and goals.

A recent study conducted by UBS found that 85% of women manage everyday expenses, but only 23% take the lead when it comes to long-term financial planning. So, even though women are proactive with their day-to-day household finances, they don’t necessarily have experience making long-term financial-planning decisions and managing an investment portfolio.

You may already have an established a relationship with a financial advisor before your spouse’s death. If you like that person, then it’s time to schedule a meeting with them to get “reacquainted” and discuss what your future financial plans are now.

However, you may end up going to another advisor who feels like a better fit. If you do decide to make a change, know that you are not alone. To that point, 80% of widows switch financial advisors within a year of their husband’s death.

Why? Because in many cases, the advisor had a relationship with the deceased spouse and never fully involved the wife in the financial-planning and investing processes.

It’s important to take your time and find a financial advisor you trust and one who understands your specific financial needs and goals.

Truth be told, anyone may call themselves a “financial advisor.” Just because someone says they are a “financial advisor” doesn’t mean that they have any specific education, background, experience or certification which actually qualifies them to give financial advice.

There are advisors, brokers, broker-dealers, certified financial planners, chartered financial analysts, certified investment management analysts, investment advisors and wealth managers, to name a few. To be sure, choosing an advisor can be confusing and overwhelming.

The bottom line is that the financial advisor you choose should be a fiduciary, fee-only advisor.

An investor study by Personal Capital revealed that nearly half of Americans mistakenly believe that all financial advisors are fiduciaries required to act in their client’s best interest at all times. But that’s just not true.

The fiduciary standard is when a financial advisor is legally bound to act in your best interest. Fiduciary advisors must put their clients’ interests before their own.

Others who call themselves advisors are only held to a suitability standard, meaning they only must suggest products that are suitable for you — even if they’re more expensive and earn them a higher commission.

Additionally, fee-only financial advisors earn money from the fees you pay for their services. These fees may be charged as a percentage of the assets they manage for you, as an hourly rate, or as a flat rate. Almost all fee-only advisors are fiduciaries.

Finding the right advisor fit

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Regardless of which kind of advisor you choose, you should make sure you know how they earn money. This helps you determine if their recommendations are actually better for you.

In fact, alarm bells should go off if the advisor you are interviewing does not clearly explain how they get compensated. If their fee structure is unclear, ask them to clarify the details.

You should also be on high alert if they propose to meet with you only once a year. A yearly meeting is insufficient, especially after the loss of a spouse. You deserve an advisor who will be available to you through all the ups and downs of the new path you’re forging.

Your relationship with your financial advisor should be a positive one. When you leave your advisor’s office, you should feel heard and know that your goals, priorities and concerns were all taken into account.

Working with a financial professional requires you to be vulnerable about highly personal aspects of your life — especially after losing a spouse.

Remember, you’re paying for your advisor’s time and services just as you would with a doctor or lawyer. You should always feel encouraged to ask questions and empowered with the knowledge that you’re in the driver’s seat of your financial life.

— By Stacy Francis, president and CEO of Francis Financial 

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