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Keeping Widows from Leaving Calls for a Delicate Dance

By R.A. Monroe October 5, 2015

When it comes to widows, there’s something that financial advisors haven’t figured out. It’s commonly understood that around 70% of these suddenly single women leave their financial advisors within the first year after their partner’s death.

In some cases, it’s because the widow never had a relationship with the advisor. In other cases, it’s because the advisor made some major missteps. And most of these missteps are understandable. Talking about money with a person in the throes of grief is difficult, after all. But with a little care, sensitivity and empathy, advisors can build strong relationships with recently widowed clients — rather than losing them to a competitor.

Being aware of the nuances of your speech can go a long way toward making a widow feel comfortable with you, says Jane Young, co-owner of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based It’s Not Just Money, a comprehensive fee-only financial-planning firm that manages $90 million in assets. Young says widows have told her that one of the most difficult questions to hear is a seemingly innocuous one: How are you doing? “Widows hear that, and they feel like — ‘Well, how do you think I’m doing? I’m miserable, I’m heartbroken,’” Young says. Instead, she recommends a subtle adjustment: asking, “How are you today?” instead. “That framing helps them open up a bit more by narrowing down the question and giving them something more concrete to talk about.”

Kathleen Rehl, a former advisor who now provides coaching for advisors on how to work with widows, through her Land O’Lakes, Fla.-based firm Rehl Wealth Collaborations, believes one of the biggest mistakes an advisor can make is failing to mention the deceased spouse. Advisors may avoid alluding to a widow’s husband because it makes them uncomfortable or because they don’t want to make her cry. But tears can be healing, Rehl says. Furthermore, that kind of avoidance just makes everyone extra-aware of the elephant in the room. “Widows don’t want their husbands to be forgotten,” Rehl says.

Kimberly Foss

If you knew the deceased spouse, Rehl recommends taking a moment to share something specific you appreciated about him — his corny jokes or his dedication to volunteer work in the community, for example. “If you didn’t know him, tell her that you’re sorry you never got a chance to meet,” she says. “Ask her what she’d like others to know about him — and then hush, and let her talk.”

It’s not so much what advisors say as how they say it, says Kimberly Foss, president of Sacramento, Calif.-based Empyrion Wealth Management, which manages $200 million. In her experience, widows often complain about advisors who try to address too many items too quickly. “You don’t need to go through your 10-point plan for her investments,” Foss says. In fact, that kind of conversation can be counterproductive — it makes the widow feel as though you’re not sympathetic to her grief.

Instead, Foss recommends that advisors narrow the focus of their discussions by emphasizing what needs to be accomplished over the next 30-to-60 days. Keep the focus on whatever the most pertinent issue of the moment is. “I just met with a suddenly widowed client, and we focused on how to pay her son’s tuition bill since school is starting next week,” Foss recalls. It’s crucial to let your client know that you’re keeping track of everything that needs to be handled, while not overwhelming her with decisions during a difficult time.

More than anything, though, Foss says it’s important to really hear what your client is saying: “Some widows deal with their grief by taking action. Others need a lot of time to process. Be very tactful, ask questions and listen — she’ll tell you what she needs.”