NEW YORK (Reuters) - In 2006, Kathleen Rehl joined the ranks of the approximately 800,000 women who become widows every year.
She was 60; just about the median age of 59. But she was unusual in one key way: She did not change her financial adviser, something that 70 percent of women seem to do within a year of a spouse’s death.
That statistic has been bandied about since 2011, and most advisers say that they find it to be anecdotally true. They also observe that female clients often switch to female advisers at this juncture.
“Women don’t generally have a gender preference for advisers, but they did if they had gone through divorce or widowhood,” says Laura Kogen, vice president of practice management and consulting at Fidelity Investments.
Women will control two-thirds of the wealth in the United States by 2030, according to AdvisorOne.com, an industry publication, and much of it will be in their hands because of a divorce or the death of a spouse.
For advisers, there are two challenges - how do you hold onto the clients you already have, and how do you look attractive to clients who are on the move with large sums of money?
It seems like common sense advice: When a couple comes in, pay attention to both. “But I can’t tell you how many financial advisers build a relationship with one of the pair and don’t take the time to talk to the other - even if one says, I’m deferring to my spouse,” says Laura Hyman, a wealth manager with Ameriprise Financial.
Fidelity’s Kogen, who oversees training programs for advisers, goes further and suggests holding small group events to get groups of women together for informal educational sessions. “Let the women talk among themselves. It allows them to interact with each other and feel more connected to you as a byproduct,” she says.
But empathy and hand-holding does not have to be about sharing your own emotions. “They don’t want to hear your story. It can be all about them,” says Stacy Francis, an adviser who owns her own boutique firm, Francis Financial, based in New York. She is also founder of Savvy Ladies, a nonprofit organization that provides free financial education to women.
In the first weeks after a death or the start of a divorce action, clients need financial triage, says Rehl, who is herself a financial adviser and author of “Moving Forward on Your Own: A Financial Guidebook for Widows.”
Yet, when she speaks to groups of advisers or widows, she hears of the exact opposite happening - the adviser whips out graphs and charts and overwhelms the grieving spouse. That is followed quickly by clients moving assets to another manager - and that leaves clients vulnerable to unethical advisers who prey on the troubled.
“When I was first getting started as a financial adviser, I went to a networking event and there was a table of men there who said they had their ‘girls’ go through the obits every morning, and then they cold-called the widows,” says Rehl.
Her own widowed aunt was taken advantage of when a church friend’s nephew convinced her to spend her retirement funds on Iraqi currency as an investment.
For widows, the foggy grieving stage could last weeks, months or even up to a year, and the most you do as an adviser is make sure cash flow is secure and benefits are continued.
Hyman treats her divorce clients as if they are mourning, because they are going through a similar trauma. “A lot of hand-holding is required,” she says. The first step is to keep clients from making emotional decisions about the division of assets until they know all the tax consequences and liabilities.
With a divorcing couple, an adviser has a few options: Stay out of it and try to keep both clients, pick one and refer the other, or farm out the tough stuff to an adviser who is a divorce specialist, such as a certified divorce financial analyst (CDFA) and then see if either or both clients will come back to you after the divorce is settled.
Francis says that in one out of 10 of the cases where they represent one side, the client stays on after the divorce.
Both Francis and Hyman say that having that CDFA designation themselves helps them win clients who are leaving other advisers.
Hyman says she gets referrals through whatever brokerage they are attached to, plus attorneys, mediators, social workers, clergy, psychologists and other clients. A significant number of people find her firm through Google searches. “Somehow, they find us,” she says.
Follow us @ReutersMoney or here; Editing by Linda Stern and Tim Dobbyn