If you’re a high-intensity, high-energy financial professional, your approach probably won’t fit the needs of a grieving widow. “They really need to take time,” says Jane Young, CFP, EA, and co-founder of Colorado Springs, Colo.-based It’s Not Just Money Inc.
These grieving women, Young says, “are in a fog those first one to three years. And you’ll see the wolves trying to get them to buy, but with so many things to worry about, the finances should be the least of their worries.”
A financial planner since 1996, Young didn’t set out to carve a niche of working with widows, but over the years, her practice and personality gravitated to helping those who are grieving. She blogs about the topic of financial planning for widows for various consumer publications and hosts the website www.moneywisewidow.com.
“I was already working with divorced women, which is a stressful situation of its own, so this was a natural transition,” Young says. “With widows, it’s more about being understanding, being laid back and not rushing the decision-making process.”
While the widows do need time, they can’t ignore their finances either, according to Young. She says a few things need early attention. “They need to know what their basic living expenses are to get their cash flows in working order. And they want to make sure they file for any benefits, such as life insurance, so they’ll have money to live off of.”
In her years of working with widows, Young has experienced two kinds of grievers — the “real emotional” and the “real analytical.” The real emotional have a difficult time dealing with almost anything. They really need time to emerge from that fog. Once they have time to work through the most difficult times, they generally are able to sit down and go beyond the basic “nuts and bolts” financial issues and look at longer life plans.
Young says the real analytical widows can cause themselves more harm, particularly in the short term. Since they have this huge vacuum in their lives due to the loss of a loved one, they fill it by making sweeping changes. They want to sell the house, get rid of the furniture, move out of state — whatever they can do to alter the comfort and routine, the memories they’ve created over these past decades.
It’s irrational behavior at a time of emotional upheaval and something Young advises widows to guard against. Their world is already upside down; the last thing they need is to add more change to their lives.
Sometimes, though, once the widow’s mind has cleared, change can be a good thing. Young tells me the story of a widow who was hanging onto her late husband’s rental properties. The widow didn’t give a tinker’s darn about her husband’s property, but she felt it diminished his memory to get rid of it.
Those properties were part of the husband’s financial goals and dreams, not the widow’s. Young explained that to her. “She didn’t make an immediate move with the properties. She had to process that for a while, but eventually she realized they were not something she wanted or needed to hang onto.”
Young says while there are categories of grievers, it’s best not to set a timetable on when a widow will be ready to discuss finances. In one case, a client’s husband had suffered from dementia for years. Young thought the widow, with so many years of dealing with her husband’s illness, would be better prepared for his passing. The actual death, however, was a tremendous loss.
“He may have been gone mentally, but he was still there with her physically,” Young says. “With his death, he was completely gone from her life, and she needed time to deal with that.”
In almost all cases, for the first year or more, the conversations need to remain with practical things that need immediate attention. Young lists the following items as falling under that category:
- Gather and organize financial information
- Develop a short-term action plan
- Cash flow and liquidity needs – identify sources of income and calculate living expenses
- Collection of benefits (Social Security, pensions, life insurance, and employee benefits)
- Review of assets and liabilities
- Settlement of the estate (in conjunction with an attorney)
- Review insurance coverage – especially health insurance
- Process transitional paperwork
- General financial guidance and support
“What I find is that it’s very difficult to get into too much goal setting or long-term planning within the first three years,” Young says. And that’s important, because in the case of the widow who wound up getting rid of her husband’s rental properties, often the financial goals and plans of the widow are vastly different than they were when she was part of a couple.
During our conversation, Young points me to a study conducted by the Administration on Aging. Some of the statistics of the 2010 research, the most recent year data is available, is eye-opening to say the least.
- In 2009, older men (measured as 65-plus years of age in this study) were much more likely to be married than older women — 72 percent of men compared to 42 percent of women.
- Widows accounted for 41 percent of all older women in 2009. There were over four times as many widows (8.9 million) as widowers (2.1 million).
- Divorced and separated (including married/spouse absent) older persons represented only 11.9 percent of all older persons in 2009. However, this percentage has increased since 1980, when approximately 5.3 percent of the older population were divorced or separated/spouse absent.
- Over half of all women over 75 live alone and one-third of all women who become widows are under the age of 65.
While many of those statistics probably fall under a mathematical parameter that we might all suspect, the one that is most startling to me is the last one, concerning the age of widows. I ask Young about this number, wondering if it is a misprint.
“That’s the misconception of widows,” she says. When people hear her talking about working with widows, they assume she’s talking about seniors. That’s not the case. Most of Young’s widow clients are between 45-65 years of age, with the average widow at 55 years old. One recent widow she worked with is 40.
“It’s a myth that they’re all elderly. So many of the widows I deal with are still working,” she says. “They have a whole lifetime ahead of them.”
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