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From Wife to Widow

A rapidly developing phenomenon is occurring in America: there are more widows than widowers. In fact, in 2018, there were 20+ million widows, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with projections of 1.4+ million widows to be added annually.

For decades, it was known as the “Little Old Lady Syndrome,” but not anymore. The average age of widowhood, according to the Bureau, is 59 years old. However, many of us have known women between 29 and 59 who have endured the miseries of widowhood resulting from murder, suicide, illness, accident, addiction and war.

Today’s woman would be remiss if she didn’t plan for widowhood as she would for divorce.

Sadness and bad decisions

An advisor told me about a widowed client who had a diversified equity account that had been doing well. After she settled her late husband’s affairs, she made an appointment for herself and her CPA.

After a few minutes of pleasantries, the woman dropped the bomb: “I want you to close my accounts.” Like so many investors that day, the markets spooked her. It was no surprise – but it was Monday, October 19, 1987, also known as “Black Monday,” the largest single day session decline in U.S. history, crashing 508 points and losing almost 23% in value.

Before the advisor had the chance to respond, the CPA blurted out, “No widow should ever invest in stocks anyway.” Now confirming that the CPA had influenced her, the veteran advisor calmly and strategically informed and advised his client of the implications of such an ill-timed request.

Explaining the proper course of action, the advisor knew that if she understood the relevance of staying invested and allowing the market run its course, she would participate in the recovery, so he forged ahead until she withdrew her request. Of course, future results may vary, but in hindsight, the Dow regained 288 points within three trading days and all market losses were recovered by September 1989.

So, what’s the rush?

Understandably, any widow in the midst of settling an estate is emotionally frazzled. The endeavor itself involves enormous energy, time and extreme patience. Advisors acknowledge she can’t make major any cogent decisions until she is ready. So advisors listen and show compassion. However, it is equally important to create a timeline as to when she will deal with the portfolio. As long as she has enough cash to live on for the next six months while repairing herself, it usually works out fine.

Adjusting to widowhood  

Millennial widows, for example, often get loads of information and free advice from their large network of friends, and know how to synthesize it. However, portfolio changes should be based on professional advice when deemed appropriate, not on a whim or hearsay. Once a surviving spouse reaches a certain emotional point, he or she might feel the need to accumulate cash as more of a “fight or flight” mechanism.

Mostly, how they visualize their personal survival, especially with young children, and how they reestablish themselves in a new stage of life predicts their actions. What many advisors do to help their client is revert back to the educational process: what the profile of the overall financial plan is; how diversification and predictable income fits in, what model was designed for recommendations if this happens, etc.

Baby Boomer women in their 60s should already have their financial plans working for them. With substantial savings, pensions and life insurance, she is likely collecting her deceased husband’s Social Security, often more substantial than hers, due to not working for several years while having children and raising a family.

Slightly older, high-net-worth women, whose lives revolved around their important or powerful husbands,’ sharing in activities with his friends and co-workers, often have many acquaintances but very few friends. Their husbands took care of them. Many left their wives well off, but also well out of the process, which averted potential opportunities for her financial literacy.

Regardless of wealth, women are strong and able to work through the psychological and emotional agonies of losing the one person they loved, trusted and depended on to make decisions. Without a contemporary support network, like younger women, her children, with portfolios of their own, now guide her. They surgically dissect Mom’s portfolio in an effort to protect her. A common criticism: not being invested aggressively enough. Truth is, Mom’s portfolio is managed accordingly – on a track specifically designed to meet her income needs, manage her risk, control her taxes and incorporate it all in her time horizon.


To understand my widowed clients’ emotions and anxieties, I’ve had to understand my own. What would give me peace of mind? Being a woman whose life expectancy will likely stretch into my 80s, my two children are my first priority. Each will have financial resources available to them. My own retirement strategy is in place. However, there are life-changing events that none of us can control that can threaten to derail any well-intentioned retirement plan. All we can do, as advisors, as people and as investors, is prepare for uncertainty, inevitability and recovery.

If you have concerns that keep you up at night, let’s talk about them. Together, we will find what works best for you, your individual situation, and your family.

DISCLAIMER: Past performance does not predict future results. This report is based on data obtained from sources we believe to be reliable. Hefren-Tillotson does not, nor any other party, guarantee the accuracy or completeness of this report or make any warranties regarding results obtained from its usage. All opinions and estimates included in this report constitute the firms judgment as of the date of this report and are subject to change without notice. This report is for informational purposes only and is not intended as an offer or solicitation to buy or sell the securities herein mentioned.

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