Every marriage or emotional partnership will eventually face some of life’s various curve balls. How each event is dealt with depends on the unique nature of the relationship between the two people and the degree of formal and informal preparation.

Some events are more challenging to talk about than others, the most difficult being what some people call the “tough talks.” They can be as varied as debts and liabilities, guardianship for dependents, long-term care, mortality and end-of-life medical and funeral wishes.

Over the next several months, we will look at several topics, identifying why they are difficult and some ways of addressing them successfully.

Preparing for One of Life’s Curve Balls

One of the inevitabilities of a long, successful marriage is that one spouse will eventually face widowhood. That transition is made easier or harder by the number of difficult conversations the couple has had – those discussions that helped prepare for that exact inevitability.

It’s human nature to avoid discomfort – and money is a notoriously uncomfortable topic for some people.

The foundation of a relationship is built on shared values, experiences and emotions. Those are the initial considerations as someone enters widowhood:

  • The loss of a co-conspirator in life who shared your visions and values.
  • The finite treasure trove of shared memories that now only you remember – and the inability to create new ones.
  • The emptiness that comes from emotions that now only travel in one direction since reciprocation no longer exists.

However, behind the wall of intense human feelings, you have the mechanics of life, all the legal and financial issues that move forward, death or no death. Whether these issues were shared evenly or not, they now rest on one person: the surviving spouse.

Ideally, a support network of trusted advisors will be in place, including attorneys, accountants and financial professionals who can guide that spouse through the unrelenting financial and legal steps and decisions.

Yet, all too often, how responsibilities are distributed will not result from logic and common sense. Instead, it reflects one expertise or another, personal preferences or power imbalances within the relationship. Situations can evolve silently over the years. In some cases, communications remain strong, and participation is shared thoroughly. In others, one spouse will make unilateral decisions, leaving the other more vulnerable at an already vulnerable time.

As for a support team, two scenarios tend to prevail: (1) couples may lack a team of legal and financial advisors either due to concerns about the cost or the perception that they should be able to handle everything themselves. (2) One spouse may have taken the reins and controlled the couple’s legal and financial issues to the exclusion of the other, including the selection of attorneys, accountants and financial professionals.

When a death occurs, the surviving spouse may be without a support team or with a team that is loyal to the departed spouse. Neither of these situations is fair and adds tremendously to the burden of transitioning from being part of a couple to being a single spouse.

So how can this be avoided?

A Typical Scenario

Despite the decades of progress women have made in society, data from the most recent Survey of Consumer Finances (sponsored by the Federal Reserve Board in 2016) indicated that 56% of husbands were designated “more knowledgeable about the household finances.” Among households in the top 1% of net worth, that number rose to 90%.

One of the study’s co-authors indicated that as net worth increases, the husband will presumably make the financial decisions and, hence, be designated as the most knowledgeable. Traditional gender roles may come into play with men naturally taking the role of decision-makers as increased wealth brings more complexity to the couple’s finances.

Whatever the explanation, this is why we require that both spouses be a part of meetings and decisions with WH Cornerstone. This way we both know what is going on and have established relationship.

Most telling is the belief within the financial industry that 70% of widows change their advisors after their spouse dies. From the widow’s perspective, that implies that most widows dealing with professional advisors did not have enough of a relationship–and comfort level–with the couple’s support team.

The Path to a Different Outcome

When it comes to managing finances as a couple, communication and harmony are essential. Both spouses need to be on board and integrated into the process, even if one has a greater financial aptitude.

The process includes choosing members of the couple’s support network, such as an estate planner, insurance agent, tax attorney, financial advisor, etc. If one spouse has chosen a professional without ensuring the other’s comfort in dealing with the choice, the transition to widowhood can be made infinitely more difficult.

Here are some steps to help navigate the inclusion of both spouses in selecting trusted advisors who will be available to support whoever becomes widowed.

  • Open Communication: There is value in an open and honest conversation about each spouse’s feelings and concerns regarding the individual members of the professional support network. Focusing on each other’s perspectives rather than assigning blame or responsibility is essential. It’s also important to acknowledge the time and effort one spouse invested in the relationship with the existing professionals – and the current results.
  • Making Joint Decisions: Both spouses should play an active role in the selection process to be sure the replacement professional is a good fit for both.
  • Identifying Concerns: The spouse with hesitation or concern about a professional should specify the reasons for the discomfort. Is it a communication style? A personality clash? How the professional makes that spouse feel? A lack of transparency? Another specific issue? Understanding the root cause can facilitate and guide the decision-making process.
  • Seeking Common Ground: Explore whether both spouses find any aspects of the professional’s services valuable. Doing so could help reach a compromise or decide if a change is required.
  • Identifying the Professionals’ Precise Roles: Discuss how involved each current professional is in the couple’s finances and legal arrangements to understand the ease or difficulty of replacement. Are they hands-on or hands-off contributors? General advisors or strategic implementers? How much history do they have with the couple or even with prior generations?
  • Identifying Key Compatibility Factors: Identify the values, communication preferences and long-term goals a professional must share to be considered compatible.
  • Interviewing for Any First-Time or Replacement Professionals: Both spouses should be involved in interviewing and selecting any new team member to avoid repeating the issues that created the discomfort in the first place.
  • Addressing Any Concerns with Existing Professionals: If both spouses decide to stay with an existing professional, the uncomfortable spouse should be encouraged to address any concerns directly with that professional. A candid conversation can go a long way to building a comfortable working environment, and a wise professional will appreciate the chance to reinforce a relationship that will survive the loss of one spouse.
  • Guaranteeing a Smooth Transition: Define with any new professional the exact steps and timeline of a transition – such as providing all necessary information, making required notifications, transferring assets, and updating legal documents or financial plans. Determine who is responsible for monitoring those steps.

The decision to add or replace professional members of a trusted support team has as its first goal the couple’s financial well-being and the strength of their relationship. However, the ultimate goal is to ensure that both spouses benefit from the “gift of preparedness,” that is, not making the transition to widowhood any harder than it needs to be.

Download our “Gift of Preparedness” guide today.

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