While the death of a spouse or partner places a huge financial burden on most families, financial advisors can play a key role in helping survivors find their financial footing, according to a nationwide survey of bereaved spouses/partners sponsored by the New York Life Foundation and the National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC).
An estimated six out of every ten bereaved parents said the loss of a spouse significantly impacted upon their family's standard of living, while 50% of respondents indicated they were unprepared for the financial impact of losing their spouse/partner.
The poll of 548 parents who lost a spouse or partner and who still had children under the age of 19 living at home was conducted nationwide via the Internet between July 6 and October 5 by national polling firm Mathew Greenwald & Associates, Inc.
"Losing a spouse is an emotionally charged ordeal, complicated by financial realities that need to be addressed in an unemotional manner," said Chris Park, president of the New York Life Foundation.
"Financially speaking, it's a 'Perfect Storm,' where the need to make some important financial and life decisions is frequently complicated by distraction and distress," Park added. "A financial advisor can add enormous value by helping a grieving spouse get their financial house back in order -- and allowing them to focus on the healing process."
Listed below are five key topics financial advisors should consider when working with a client who has suffered a family loss:
1. Don't Duck the Topic -- Be Prepared To Listen. Don't let the death of a client's spouse become an "elephant in the room" because the topic is uncomfortable. Talking about the death of a loved one can be healing for a grieving spouse. Avoid dwelling on your own experiences -- sometimes being a good listener is enough.
2. Respect The Client's Grief. A client likely will be overcome with raw emotion, especially at the onset of the grieving process. Offer to meet the client at their home if they prefer. If you meet at your office, don't permit your meeting to be interrupted for any reason. For the client, this time will be critical and sacred -- make sure that the client has your full attention. Hold your calls, cell phones off.
3. Be Patient. According to a New York Life Foundation survey, 90% of bereaved spouses indicated their loss was the "worst thing" that has ever happened to them. Simple decisions may become excruciating ordeals for surviving spouses who are simply trying to cope with their emotions, children, friends, and community. Naturally, you and the client need to make some important decisions, but provide plenty of space, and conduct the financial conversation at the pace that the client finds most comfortable.
4. Be Mindful Of Women's Special Needs. Demographic realities make it inevitable that more married women than men will be left bereaved. In the experience of many advisors and agents, women can become more financially conservative following loss, given that in many cases a major source of income evaporates. Capital preservation often becomes their financial priority - adjust accordingly.
5. Have the "What If" Conversation. The best conversations happen in circumstances where there is adequate insurance in place. The groups' research indicates that one in nine kids will lose a parent before the age of 20 -- typically the dad and typically a wage earner -- and that family finances take a huge hit. Obviously, there's a strong empirical argument for adequate life insurance. At the same time, as hard as it may be for surviving spouses to contemplate their own mortality, it is critical for them to plan for the seemingly unthinkable. Don't fail to have that essential conversation, ideally during a less emotional time.