A Trusted Partner: 4 Stories of Financial Planning for Widows
Having a spouse or life partner pass away is one of the most challenging passages of life.
As a widow, you go from spending years making decisions with a partner to suddenly having to do everything on your own. Making decisions without your partner about spending, investments, and philanthropy can be a challenge, and it is natural to want to get input on these big issues from someone you trust.
Through my work supporting clients who are widowed, I’ve become attuned to the different kinds of support needed depending on where you are in your experience. Whether you are about to be widowed, just lost your partner, or are further down the road, there are different considerations along each step on your journey.
My experience as both a financial planner and a spouse (with 30+ years being half of a team making family financial decisions) I am able to offer a unique form of support: serving as the financial decision-making partner for women who suddenly find themselves alone.
Here are four stories that embody the many widows I’ve worked with. These stories highlight some of the challenges widows face and the process we used to overcome them. To honor confidentiality, names and other identifying features have been changed.
Suzanne – Putting On Her Own Mask First
As the sole surviving parent for three young adult children, Suzanne feels responsible for their well-being. She’s a recent widow and without her husband as a co-parent, she says she feels the need to be a “Tiger Mom” to her sons who have all recently graduated from college. At times that translates to her wanting to step in and help financially, and often she feels obligated to serve as caregiver even when they never asked for her help.
In one conversation, we put on our “mom hats” together and talked through whether her second son needed financial help for grad school or if it might be perfectly fine for him to take out a loan. I ran financial plan scenarios to show the impact of assisting him and she used this input to make an informed decision. Now, when she has concerns about whether she can afford something or whether she should help her sons, we talk through the options together. We compare her goals with her resources, and we watch out for instances when giving away more than what is sustainable could jeopardize her own financial well-being.
“Putting on her own mask first” was the reminder she needed to hear from someone else who knew her financial situation. Now she calls me her financial friend who affirms that she can assist her family without it being her sole responsibility.
Sandy – Ensuring Financial Freedom
Sandy’s husband was ill for a long time and her life was solely focused on caring for him and enjoying their remaining time together. Because of her dedication, she didn’t have the extra time or space to nurture her other friendships and she and her husband did not have any children.
After he died, she was in a quiet, sad place for several years. But she would say that it was not all bad. She used this time to regroup, to reorganize, and to let go. After a while, she started to expand her circles and become more connected to those with similar interests. She shifted from being home a lot to traveling all over the country. Her world expanded a great deal at the pace that felt right for her.
At first, my role was to help sort out the details of her family’s estate, interpret complex paperwork, and help her gain confidence in making investment decisions that were right for her. Sandy says this was like “financial school” for her as she learned to understand all the details enough to confidently delegate to the professionals in her life. Now, I’m the person who takes financial tasks off her plate so she can be out enjoying her life. When she receives complex communications about her investments, I help translate them. She wants to understand her financial situation but she does not wish to get into the weeds or manage it on her own. What she finds most helpful is to have someone help her prioritize her goals and know how much she can safely spend and give away to ensure financial freedom.
Marie – Focus on What Brings Joy
Marie’s family owns a business that she historically had little to do with. But Marie had guilt that she wasn’t involved more and worried that she should have paid better attention to the details of how the business was being run, especially after her husband passed away. He had been the one to deal with all the money stuff in their lives, including the income she received from the family business.
Together, we worked through the “whys” behind her not wanting to be involved with the family business. In the end, she had an epiphany. It did not bring her joy. Marie realized as long as her financial advisory team is helping to ensure she gets her fair share of the family business income, she could let go of the burden of worrying about how things were run.
Marie spends her time and energy focusing on what brings her joy these days. She knows what she needs to pay attention to and care about. Freeing her up to prioritize time away from money minutiae and family drama has allowed her to spend time on grandchildren, volunteering, and creative pursuits.
Janet – Aligning Philanthropy with Values
Charitable giving has always been a big part of Janet’s life but her gifts had often been reactive ﹣basically, she has a hard time saying no to all the charities inundating her with heartfelt pleas. At one point, she was so confused by all the ‘asks’ that she had to take a break from giving to charities all together. Janet liked having a second opinion on what charities to support, and after her spouse died, she no longer had that person. So, she just froze her giving because she worried she was giving either too much, or too little, or to the wrong places entirely!
To remedy this inertia, we first dug into her deepest values around what she wanted to change in the world. From there we made a plan to give the majority of her charitable dollars towards those specific efforts. We also reserved some funds for “reactive” giving, the kinds of needs you can’t predict, like supporting victims of natural disasters. As someone who worked in the nonprofit world for years, I love digging into how organizations do their work and how they deploy gifts.
Through the financial planning process we realized she could give away a lot more than she’d been giving and we were able to quadruple her giving goal. Janet has now become personally connected with the charities she supports, and this feels particularly fulfilling. She wants her legacy to include giving beyond just her lifetime, so she’s started including her 30-something daughter in the decision making.
To Janet, I’m a financial partner who helps her weigh decisions, whether around charitable giving or everyday life expenses. She’s learning to relax about money matters because she knows she isn’t making them alone. As she says, “Even small things aren’t small when you have to decide them by yourself.” Being reassured she has a financial partner to help her make these decisions brings her great ease and comfort.
Finding a Financial Partner
Being a widow means you have suffered a great loss, but it doesn’t mean you have to do it all alone now. Much as needing a community who understands your loss, many widows find they need a financial partner again to ensure they are taking care of their assets in a way that supports their own long term health and well being, as well as that of their loved ones.
For anyone who may be going through this challenging life transition, I have put together a guide to help determine what needs to be done in the days, weeks, and months after a partner passes on. Download the Surviving Spouse Checklist here.
If you would like to reach out to me personally, I would love to offer my help. Schedule a call today on my personal calendar for a 30 minute chat.