It’s a harsh reality, but reality nonetheless: Any advisor who has couples as clients will at some point be dealing with newly single women who are either divorced or widowed.

There’s a growing network of advisors who specialize in these types of clients and serving their distinct needs, and those who can demonstrate an understanding of what loss feels like (and an appreciation for grief’s timetable) will quickly become invaluable.

“This is a huge group of people who need assistance,” said Carol Lee Roberts, president of the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts, to an audience of advisors at Financial Advisor’s 2024 Invest In Women conference, held in West Palm Beach, Fla., in March.

“The divorce rate for people over 50 has doubled since 1990. It’s more than tripled for people over age 60,” she continued. “One of the driving forces of gray divorce has been named in Japan as ‘retired husband syndrome.’ Two people who were each pursuing their lives are now home together most of the time, and they’re not finding it an enjoyable experience.”

Panelist Carolyn Moor, founder of the Modern Widows Club, told conference attendees about her own experience of widowhood after her husband died in a car accident. She said her club has grown to 50,000 members and she shared her own set of statistics about this demographic.

“Any advisor can up their level of compassion and understand widows, because you are going to have widowed clients. From age 40 to age 85, widowed women go from 1% to 73% of the married population,” she said. “Being married is the shortest time frame in a woman’s life now, because we’re living longer and we’re marrying later.”

These clients aren’t for the faint of heart, however. The two most stressful events in someone’s life are the death of a spouse and divorce, said panelist Megan Kopka, also a widow and managing partner of Apprise Wealth Management in Phoenix, Md.

“If you choose to do this work, do it deep and do it slow,” she said. “This is not quick money. I think many of us in this room have probably had to unwind unscrupulously sold annuities and cash life insurance policies. Do not be that person. Please do not sit in front of vulnerable women and sell them crappy products where there’s no liquidity when they don’t know what their life is going to be like.”

Exercise Your Compassion Muscle
There are lots of things advisors can do to support newly single women, the panelists said.

Most advisors got into the business because they want to help people, so having empathy for clients and trying to walk in their shoes is something to be expected of any professional. But when you show compassion, you have to take it to the next level, Kopka said.

“What stepping into compassion is, is taking empathy and adding the ability to help,” she said. “We are the front line for widows and divorcees, and we need to be compassionate advisors. I can’t speak loudly enough about the level of compassion we must have.”

Time Doesn’t Mean The Same Thing Anymore
The Modern Widows Club has conducted studies on the various ways women are affected by the death of their spouse. Ninety percent of the widows in the organization, for instance, reported the cognitive disorientation called “brain fog,” or the mental inability to make decisions.

The client “doesn’t know it’s happening. You don’t know it’s happening,” Moor said. “It’s important to understand what it is.” Someone who might have been a very confident woman before “can’t make a decision now because she’s fighting all these fears and is very overwhelmed.”

With or without that disorientation, widowed and divorced clients are not the same people they once were. Conventional wisdom says these clients shouldn’t make any major decisions for a year after going into life on their own, but research has shown that the actual “passage period” between the start of a major life transition and when it can be considered a new normal is closer to six years, Roberts said.

“Now, we are problem-solvers and we like to come up with solutions. But I encourage you when you’re working with these people not to impose your solution on them,” she said. “You need to realize that these things have to work in their own time frame. It doesn’t make any difference that you think in two years they should be over it and on to the next thing. They don’t necessarily have that same time clock in their head.”

A Network Of Other Professionals
A couple’s financial advisor is often one of the first people outside family and close friends to be told of a death or divorce, even sometimes before lawyers are pulled in for the handling of an estate or negotiating terms, the panelists said.

Divorce and estate attorneys, tax attorneys and CPAs—and even advisors with a divorce specialty—might be needed to handle aspects of this new reality for the client who has had a bombshell dropped on them. “Are you going to have special expertise?” Roberts asked. “If you don’t [have that expertise], do you know someone in your community who has taken the classes, done the studying and has the information to help a client going through this?”

Not everyone has to be an expert in all things, but they do need someone in their deck of referrals that knows how to help, she said.

“Because the one thing you don’t want to do is learn at your client’s expense,” she said.

Tap Into Other Resources
There are good resources out there for advisors, including the Modern Widows Club website, which links to people who support widows.

“Everything we do in our organization is the next level of what we feel is the most excellent support for widows,” Moor said. “If you’re a widow supporter, we have a six-month newsletter for you so you can understand what it’s like living as a widow. A big part of our support is supporting the people who are nearest to widows.”

Losing A Way Of Life
The death of a life partner represents not just the death of the person, but also of all the shared dreams and ongoing conversations. And not just that first year.

“The first year, I got through that first Christmas, and everyone saying, ‘You’re so strong.’ Well, everybody falls away,” Kopka said. “And the second year, I thought, ‘Oh crap, I have to do this again.’ And again, and again.”

Just last weekend she said she marked the 10th anniversary of her husband Keith’s death. She said she still has nights where she stays in and cries, “really messy crying, ugly crying, snotty, gasping.”

“I have close friends I can talk to. But the reality is you might be that person for your client,” she said. “You’re in there, in a one-hour meeting, possibly face-to-face, maybe over Zoom. Who are you going to be? How are you going to show up for the people who are grieving their marriages, whether it’s because of divorce or death?”

Recognize Secondary Losses, Too
Besides the primary loss that comes in these situations, there are a host of secondary losses that add up in painful ways. Sometimes the client will lose friends, sometimes family. Healthcare benefits, if they were provided through the spouse’s work, will disappear along with their salary.

Clients in these situations also find their jobs at risk. “You know who wants you back to your old self, your fully functioning self? Your employer. And that’s sometimes not a possibility,” Kopka said.

And suddenly there can be the addition of solo parenting that was never part of the plan.

“To be in that position where I’m making all of the decisions on my own, unilaterally, was very difficult, and I’m a strong, independent woman. So if you want your client to come in and maybe make some decisions, try to stay with only the priority decisions. Focus on anything that’s timely. Let the rest go,” said Kopka. “Because I have no one to discuss anything with, not only about finances, but where to live, how to be, how to parent my children. I don’t have the person to share the birth story with anymore, right?”