Why Widows Ditch Their Advisors

Investment News
By Lavonne Kuykendall
May 9, 2012 4:14 pm ET

Amy Florian, chief executive of bereavement counselor Corgenius Inc., knows why.

“The adviser didn’t ask me about what I was going through,” she said of the first adviser she hired to manage life insurance proceeds shortly after she became a widow and single mother of an infant at 25. “I ended up switching to an adviser who treated me like a person instead of a number.”

Of course, we can’t expect our advisor to know what we’re going through, especially as a young widow. So the key is not to ‘know’ per se, but to be patient and empathetic- and to suspend judgement. The key thing to remember is that a recently bereaved person should not make any major financial decisions for a year. So as an advisor, this would not be the time to hand your client a bunch of reading material and ask her to take time to learn about the stock market. She can barely get through her daily life, let alone learn something as complex as the stock market.

At a Wednesday session of the NAPFA National Conference in Chicago, Ms. Florian shared details of her experience and the thoughts of other widows with whom she has worked.

The most important thing to remember when working with a client who has lost a loved one is to acknowledge what she called the “elephant in the room.”

“Ask if they would like to tell you what happened,” Ms. Florian said. If the person wants to talk, take the time to listen. Minimize the number of decisions they must make early on, and help them get control of their financial fears by asking them to write them down. Then offer to help solve them, she said.

Financial fears are the biggest worry for widows. Remember, they have lost their foundation, all their dreams have eroded and the future seems bleak. They are looking to an advisor to ease their burden and to lighten their financial load through this tough time. They want reassurance and a safety net. This is the time to forget the sale, forget the commission and build the relationship. If you haven’t bothered before, then this is the time to do it.

One tip: if a grieving client begins to cry, don’t offer her a tissue or hold a tissue box up to her, Ms. Florian said. “In widow support groups, we call that the ‘shut up box,’” Ms. Florian said.

Instead, she said advisers should make it a practice always to have a box of tissues in a handy spot within easy reach of any client who might find themselves tearing up, but don’t make a show of offering it to her.

Drawing attention to the fact that a client is crying sends an unspoken message that the adviser is uncomfortable and wishes she would stop, Ms. Florian said.

The best thing an advisor can do is to acknowledge the loss, acknowledge the pain and fear and offer to support the widow. If you didn’t take the time to connect with her before, you will find it difficult at this stage. She is a stranger to you, you haven’t built a relationship and you have to make up for lost time. Do not spend time talking up your portfolio performance; she won’t care at this moment. She will want to know how you can help her and can you safeguard her money while she sorts out her life.
Among widows with whom she has worked, running out of money is the most common fear, even in cases where that is not a realistic concern.

Ask widows to write down their biggest fears in a notebook you provide, and explain how you plan to address those fears, she said.
“Logic doesn’t work in those cases,” she said. “Writing down the fears takes away their power.”

Writing down my fears wouldn’t have helped me… After all I wasn’t looking to my advisor to counsel me. What I wanted him to do is be competent, understanding, compassionate and patient. My advisor didn’t do that and I left him 3 years later- when I was stronger and more confident. I’m sure, to this day, he has no idea what he didn’t do…..

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