His Prognosis was Fatal but His Widow Became a Client for Life

Here are the most important steps that you need to take to ensure you build a long-lasting relationship.

By Laura Mattia

Editor’s note: This is the author’s second article in a six-part series for Rethinking65 on working with widows.

Laura Mattia
Laura Mattia

In my previous article, I discussed the need to understand what a widow is experiencing, how she feels, and how you can build rapport during the grieving stage of widowhood. You will often meet a widow after she has experienced loss, but there may be a time when you will begin working with her and her spouse prior to death. Assisting a couple through this life transition can be challenging but also rewarding. According to a widely cited statistic, 70% of widows fire their advisor after their spouse dies. You can prevent this by helping the couple prepare before the husband dies.

Financial advisors are often the recipient of unwelcome news. One of the worst is when a client shares a health diagnosis. What will you do if a couple comes to you and tells you the husband is terminally ill? The most important thing you can do as the couple’s advisor is to encourage them to share their fears and concerns. The conversation will most likely become emotional, and there will be tears, so you need to be prepared for that. You will want to understand the prognosis and see if there are any opportunities for you to help.

While you may not feel qualified to provide input, you can discern if they have fully explored their options and are confident they are taking the right path. Ask if they have received a second opinion about the diagnosis and if they understand their treatment options. If they have not explored hospice and end-of-life care yet, encourage them to request a list of hospice providers in their community so they can begin the interview process.

Estate Planning Documents

You may have done comprehensive planning for your clients and, if so, now is the time when your estate planning recommendations become essential. If your client has fully executed documents, you want to make sure the documents are well thought out and that your clients fully understand them. Maybe they understood the plan several years ago, but now they need a refresher. Review the documents with your clients to ensure they are still appropriate and reflect your clients’ current thinking.

Spending time to educate the couple — particularly the wife, as the pending executor and decision-maker — will reduce anxiety. As you prepare the couple, take notice of the transition unfolding. This is especially important if the wife had relied on her spouse to be the primary decision-maker. As she transitions into her new role as chief decision-maker, she, like some women in traditional marriages, may be overwhelmed. Showing sensitivity to how she adapts to her new position and the couples’ overall emotional state is paramount throughout this time.

Medical and Legal Paperwork

If you were not engaged in the couple’s estate planning activities, you should review their end-of-life paperwork (medical and legal) in detail. Ensure the wife understands what medical interventions her spouse wants, as reflected in an advance directive and living will. Make sure the documents were executed in the state they are now living in. Explain the difference in alternative legal documents such as a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order, a Do Not Intubate (DNI) order and a Do Not Hospitalize (DNH) order. Make sure she has all the documents the couple deems essential, which might require significant discussion.

The legal Power of Attorney is another important document you will want to review with the couple. If all financial issues were not collaborated on in the past, this is the time to make everything clear. Discuss who will pay the bills now and immediately following the death. Are there any services that should be discontinued or changed? What about life insurance?

If they have insurance policies, you will want to review the paperwork to ensure they are in order and that you can help the wife collect following the death. You may want to encourage her to contact the life insurance company now. Sometimes insurance companies will pay in advance of death for a terminal disease, so she can pay for arrangements or maybe even have a last fling with her spouse.

Personal Items

You also will want to ask about personal effects. There may have been a side letter, but has it been updated? Help the couple discuss who should receive personal belongings such as a car, a ring or other sentimental items. I find this discussion can get emotional. Memories and stories often surface and I usually get more clarity around my client’s sense of purpose and meaning after this discussion.

I often encourage the couple to address any unfinished projects, either around the house, at work or in the community. You might even participate.

Funeral Planning

While most financial advisors/planners don’t get into the weeds around funeral planning and logistics when assisting with estate planning, it is now time under these conditions. Facilitating discussions around preferences between funeral home or mortuary; whether the body should be embalmed, buried or cremated; whether there is a preference around the burial or the casket; what type of funeral service; and who should deliver the eulogy are all difficult but worthwhile discussions.

Ask them to list who they will want to speak to before the death and who should be notified after death. You may want to encourage them to pre-pay funeral expenses since it is often less expensive if done prior to death.

Peace of Mind Using the Comprehensive Financial Plan

Janice and Steve were in shock when they came to see me.  Steve had glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer, which has a short life span following diagnosis. Their doctor told them Steve had less than 24 months to live. We talked about all their options and if there were any trials available to him.

Living in northern New Jersey, they asked me if they could afford to stay in a hotel in Manhattan so that Steve could receive treatment from New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where he could be treated by one of the top neurosurgeons in the country and participate in a national trial. I assured them that based on our last financial plan update, I felt they could.

Noticing their anxiety, I reran their plan with this updated scenario. I included increasing health costs for the months ahead, adding hotel and transportation costs during the trial period. I also adjusted the survival period when Janice will be on her own without Steve’s higher income to support her lifestyle. My initial feeling was correct, but I now had supporting analysis to put their minds at ease.

The analysis illustrated that Janice’s financial future would not be in jeopardy if they pursued the New York option. Even though the eventual outcome remained, Janice and Steve had the freedom and the luxury to decide how and where he would receive treatment, increasing Steve’s chances to prolong his life and maintain the quality of their lives.

Client For Life

I was able to help Steve and Janice because we had done significant financial planning before the crisis and because I knew their beliefs, their emotional strength and spiritual influences. I talked to them about the legacy Steve wanted to leave for his family and encouraged him to pursue whatever would help ensure his wishes. Rather than a depressing conversation, our discussions were motivating and inspirational.

Steve passed away in 2012 and Janice is doing wonderfully. Later, she told me that my help was invaluable since our work together helped her cope and manage her stress. The couple was able to spend quality time together without worrying about what they needed to do next. Assisting a client with this type of loss is emotionally taxing and intimate, and your relationship with that person will never be the same.

Laura Mattia Ph.D., MBA, CFP, is the CEO and a senior fee-only planner with Atlas Fiduciary Financial LLC in Sarasota, Fla.

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