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by Matt Sommer, CFP, CPWA on May 30, 2018 9:00:00 AM

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Working with Widows

More than 70 percent of widowed clients will leave their financial advisor within one year after losing their spouse. This pattern introduces uncertainty and unpredictability into a widow’s financial planning. This article shares steps that you can take to help retain your recently widowed clients. Learn how you can avoid becoming a statistic, while serving your clients’ best interest in a trying time.

Working with Widows by Matt Sommer, CFP, CPWA


Follow these steps to help retain your recently widowed clients.


During times of extreme hardship, individuals tend to lean heavily on their support network—family, close friends, and, often times, a trusted fi nancial advisor. Coping with the loss of a spouse is one such life-changing experience that undoubtedly leaves widows in need of support.


Although advisors provide a critical service in the aftermath of a spouse’s death, more than 70 percent of widowed clients will leave their advisor within one year after losing their spouse, according to a 2011 survey by the Spectrum Group. This signifi cant client turnover introduces uncertainty and unpredictability into a widow’s fi nancial planning at the worst possible time and has a negative long-term impact on an advisor’s practice.


How can advisors avoid becoming a statistic while still serving their clients’ best interests in a trying time? There’s no perfect answer, as every client relationship is unique, but advisors who generally employ a mix of pre- and post-death actions will position themselves better to retain clients beyond the key one-year threshold.

  • Develop a relationship early. Too often, financial advisors talk directly to the husband only when meeting with couples. Engaging both spouses in financial discussions from the start can help advisors build relationships that can be the linchpin to successful client retention. It’s critical to invest time and resources in connecting with female clients from the beginning, so a trusting relationship is in place at the time of their husbands’ passing.
  • Create a “decision-free” zone. A one-year “decision-free” zone ensures that a widow does not need to make unnecessary decisions immediately following the death of her husband. It pushes decisions like housing, gifts to family members or large investments to a less emotionally charged point in the future. With widows already enduring a major life transition following the loss of a spouse, it makes sense to let time pass before making major fi nancial decisions that will have long-lasting implications. Delaying non-essential decisions allows widows to settle into a more normal routine, while ensuring that they don’t need to make signifi cant decisions in the immediate wake of a life-altering event.
  • Areas of immediate action. While many decisions can and should be delayed as part of the “decision-free” zone, it’s critical for advisors to address a few areas in the early months following a spouse’s passing. These include:
    • Getting organized. Create a seamless transition of fi nancial matters that puts the least amount of strain possible on the widow. For example, obtain at least 10 copies of the death certifi cate to minimize the number of times a widow needs to go through the process, and keep any joint checking accounts open, should a check in the name of the husband arrive in subsequent months.
    • Social Security. What benefi t is a widow entitled to, and when is she entitled to receive that benefit? The “collect now-collect later” strategy, providing the widow has a working record, allows her to begin collecting survivor’s benefi ts early, while continuing to build up retirement credits of her own. When she reaches full retirement age or later, she can then begin collecting, based on her own work history.
    • Estate management. The surviving spouse should consider fi ling an estate-tax return on the decedent’s estate, even if no estate tax is owed. While this may seem unorthodox, this documentation must be fi led in a timely manner to take advantage of the portability of the exemption amount in the estate tax laws. The process of retaining a widowed client begins long before her husband’s death. By acknowledging this, advisors can build bonds with both spouses early in the client-advisor relationship. Then, when faced with the death of the husband, the already existing relationship can help create a smoother transition period for the widow, while providing advisors with an increased likelihood of long-term client retention. 




Matt Sommer, CFP, CPWA, is vice president and leads the Defined Contribution and Wealth Advisor Services team at Janus. In this role, he provides guidance and consultation to financial advisors on some of today’s most complex retirement issues. His areas of expertise include regulatory and legislative trends, practitioner best practices, and fi nancial and retirement-planning strategies for HNW clients.


This article appeared in Advisor Today.


Topics: Diverse Markets