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Five Things Women Going Through A Financial Transition Should Know
Patrice Cresci and Clari Nolet
13 March 2020
The following set of observations come from the family wealth counselling firm Team Hewins. The authors address what happens when women divorce or suffer bereavement. These events can throw up a lot of unexpected and difficult challenges which add to what is almost always a painful time in a person’s life anyway. As this industry is regularly told, it is needs to improve how it serves women and heed their request for good advice given much more quickly and efficiently. Ann came into the Team Hewins office crying and feeling that her life was ending. She had worked with her husband in their business. Now, as they were going through a divorce, some hard truths hit her: Her husband hadn’t filed a tax return in seven years and had not renewed her professional license. Their biggest asset was their home, and it was for sale. She knew she would receive some money from the sale of their house, but she wasn’t sure whether she would get any spousal support. Thankfully, their two children were grown and providing for themselves; still, she was devastated and anxious – as many would be in her position. As in any situation, knowledge is power. 5, Avoid making financial decisions solely based on emotions Visualization helps take the emotion out of decision making. Most women don’t want to look back and say, “I wish I had known that when I was making all the tough decisions.” They want to feel well-prepared and that we have their backs. The authors Patrice attended California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA where she earned a BS in agricultural business, concentrating on finance and appraisal, and holds a minor in wine and viticulture.
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Losing a spouse through divorce or death is emotionally, physically, and financially trying. And while even the best financial advisor cannot fill the emotional void from the loss, an advisor can make the transition from life with a partner to life without a partner smoother. That’s where we at Team Hewins come in. We become a woman’s partner through this transition and into her new norm. We are her second set of ears, her advocate, and advisor. We can help her focus on the most important pieces at each phase of the transition.
1, Don’t postpone starting a conversation with a financial advisor
As advisors, we serve as the quarterback in the client’s financial life. We look at assets, asset protection, estate planning, benefits, Social Security, income, liabilities, cash and tax returns, and we work closely with other professionals to make sure we don’t miss opportunities for clients. We know that we don’t have all of the answers, so we bring in specialists such as attorneys and accountants to assist and guide in their areas of expertise.
And even if you are already working with these professionals, part of our job is to work cooperatively with your CPA and estate attorney. We are all playing in the same sandbox for the benefit of the client. In the end, the client makes all decisions, but we and the other specialists are there to educate and provide options.
Women contemplating a divorce or just starting the process should speak to a family law attorney, who will set the legal framework, and a financial advisor, who will work within that framework. Death, meanwhile, can be unplanned, so some widows may not be able start the conversation with a financial advisor as early as a woman going through a divorce would. However, we do know that we won’t live forever. We have seen many couples come to us at some point because they acknowledge that they are aging and want an investment program in place well before it becomes urgent.
Yet it is never too late. If a spouse is currently going through an illness that may end in death, then the couple should use this time to consult their financial advisor and jointly develop a plan for how the remaining spouse will be supported.
It also is worth mentioning that no matter how healthy a spouse or a relationship is, it is a good idea to make sure that each spouse knows what assets they have, where they are and how to access them. Typically, one spouse is more involved in the finances than the other. However, we encourage both spouses to attend at least one meeting a year together so that both are on the same page about where assets are held and what policies they have. At the very least, they should know who to call if or when something happens.
2, What to know before an initial appointment with an advisor
If a woman in transition is going to her first appointment with a financial advisor, the more information she has, the better. However, it can be overwhelming to gather all financial data before scheduling an appointment, and that is not a requirement. Though information helps and will have to be collected at some point, we typically start with a conversation to get an understanding of her situation.
In Ann’s case, we let her know that we would sort through her options and put together a balance sheet, so that she would have a big picture to look at where she stood. This conversation gives us a chance to ask questions so that we can customize a checklist to help a woman gather the documents that are needed. As part of creating this checklist, we help prioritize which documents are needed first, second, etc.
For women going through a divorce, we will establish if they have access to the documents that are needed. If not, a woman’s attorney can request the information in the discovery process, or she can start to gain access to gather the documents herself. We look at tax returns and all associated documents to help guide them on what to ask for. In divorce, the spouses are required to disclose all financial information to each other, but some can be omitted by mistake or intentionally. Meanwhile, for widows, we look at estate documents and tax returns first. In either case, continuing to put one foot in front of another and make progress is what’s most important.
3, Have a clear financial plan for your new life
Women going through a transition, whether due to death or divorce, are rebuilding their entire lives, not just financially. That means reconstructing their goals and planning for how to reach them. One financial mistake that women who are going through a transition tend to make is that they don’t do enough planning. Solid planning is the foundation for all decisions. Trying to start a new future without it is like building a house without first having an architect draw up a blueprint. How do you know what you’re trying to accomplish or where to start?
As a woman going through a transition considers such questions as, “Can I afford to stay in my house,” and “Do I have to return to work or get a better paying job,” it is important to keep in mind that a woman’s income may decline after the loss of a spouse, at least in the near term. Women who worked before, during, or after their marriages experienced a 20-per cent decline in income when their marriages ended, according to an Atlantic article citing research conducted by Stephen Jenkins, a professor at the London School of Economics.
The situation tends to be even worse for widows. Half of widows faced a 50 per cent or more decline in household income, according to a Barron’s article. These statistics do not mean that it is impossible for a woman to go through one of these transitions and still come out financially stable on the other side, but they do highlight the importance of seeking financial advice early, having a plan, and taking steps to reach one’s goals.
4, Be aware of how much you spend
A crucial component of having a clear financial plan is knowing how much you spend and on what. This is particularly essential for women who are working to rebuild their lives after a divorce or the death of a spouse. However, typically, expenses are the weak link in financial planning, as most clients do not know what their lifestyle costs.
This weak link can have a detrimental effect on a woman’s ability to plan for her future, even with a qualified financial advisor’s help. That’s because any planning we do for clients is reliant on what goes into the plans. And so, if we have wildly inaccurate expense information, then no amount of planning is going to be helpful as it could be. By contrast, the more a woman – and, by extension, her advisor – is aware of how much she is spending and on what, the better she can make informed decisions about her future.
Take Ann, for example. Ann lived very frugally and knew her expenses. She knew she was going to have to live on Social Security and draw from her assets. She had some stock from before she was married and was going to need to prove it was separate property. There were also a few rentals she and her husband owned together; once these were sold, she would have some additional cash to invest. The big questions were whether she had enough investible assets to cover the gap between Social Security and expenses, and did she have enough cash to buy a place to live? She used some of the money she received from the sale of her house to buy a condo. She had never invested money before and was very nervous about investing as well as having her money last throughout her lifetime.
Since Ann had a good understanding of her expenses and prospective income sources, we were able to help her make an informed plan for her future as a single woman. We looked at all her assets and put together a plan with 50 per cent stock and 50 per cent bonds to start with. We estimated that the income generated from this portfolio would provide the income needed.
Once the divorce ended and her assets were confirmed, Ann started to relax and spend more time with her daughter and grandchildren, who live near her. She’s also very talented at making any place she lives in very appealing. Her condo’s value increased significantly, and she decided to move to a house in a golf community several hours away and considerably less expensive. Once she was comfortable with investing, she was able move to a 60/40 portfolio, as she needed to take a bit more risk to cover some increasing expenses. She also started to travel a bit.
Alongside not having a clear financial plan and not being aware of one’s own spending, the other mistake women going through a transition often make is forming financial decisions based on emotions without looking at the long-term consequences of those decisions. For example, many women going through a divorce or facing a recent death struggle with the question of whether they can afford to stay in the family home. It’s difficult to avoid letting emotions guide the way when making that decision, but it is crucial for women to realistically assess the housing they can afford.
Some women may decide that it is best – and financially possible – for them to stay in the family home. For example, we helped one woman reach a compromise with her husband that enabled her to stay in the family home for a certain number of years so that their special needs child could continue receiving assistance in their school district. But sometimes it is not possible, or not the best option overall, for a woman to stay in the family home.
When that happens, no one can soften the emotional blow, but having a good financial advisor can help make these tough steps easier. Starting a new life can be overwhelming, and we strive to help women have as much control over their futures as possible. But having control over one’s future requires making decisions based on reason, rather than solely on emotion. To help women do this, we guide them through visualizing the results of their choices by running what-if simulations so they can see what works for them or against them and their goals.
6, You don’t have to go through this alone
If you are a woman going through a divorce or facing the recent death of a spouse, the most important thing to know is that you are not alone. As advisors working with women in transition, we know that this process can be extremely overwhelming in any situation. You are going from a partnership to building a financial plan to support yourself, your goals, and your new life. We will be your second set of ears, advocate, and advisor. We will look at everything, help guide you and support you during this difficult time. As part of that process, we will help you focus on the most important pieces at each phase of the transition and break the work into smaller, more digestible pieces. In sum, we help bring sanity to a very emotional process and can help you step-by-step.
We will become your partner not only through this transition but also into your new norm. We can help you feel confident that when you are through the transition, you will feel at peace with the decisions you made during it. You might be in a state of grief now and just going through the motions, but rest assured that this tumultuous period of your life is not the new forever. Be patient; it all will become more manageable and clearer.
Finally, it's important to keep in mind that you can only make decisions at certain points in life with the information that you have or had available. It is counterproductive to look back and wish you would have done something different. For example, it's futile to wish you hadn't sold the house since now the housing market has gone up. You made that decision at the time, and it was the right decision for you. Don’t dwell on the past.
Instead, keep moving forward - as Ann did. Today, Ann looks back and is very grateful that she had a partner to create a financial plan and help her stay on track as she moved into her future. She’s relieved she won’t be a burden to her children. She was even able to help her son purchase a home, something she never thought would be possible.
Clari Nolet, CFP®, CDFA® Senior Financial Advisor
She works with clients’ advisors including, but not limited to family law attorneys, mediators, CPAs, and forensic CPAs.
Prior to joining Team Hewins, Clari spent four years at Wealth Architects in Mountain View and 8 years at Opes Advisors in Palo Alto as a financial advisor assisting women in transition, giving seminars and serving as an expert witness in divorce cases. Before changing her career to finance, she served in senior positions in the semiconductor industry. Clari graduated from Suffolk University’s Sawyer School of Management with an MBA in finance and St. Lawrence University with a BS in chemistry.
Patrice Cresci, CFP® Principal and Senior Financial Advisor
In addition to serving her clients as a senior financial advisor, Patrice serves as a member of the management team, where her particular focus is leading all of the firm’s advisors and overseeing our financial planning processes.
1 Darlena Cunha, “The Divorce Gap,” Atlantic , https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/04/the-divorce-gap/480333/.
2 Reshma Kapadia, “Widowed Women Highlight Wealth Gap Between Genders,” Barron’s , https://www.barrons.com/articles/widowed-women-highlight-wealth-gap-between-genders-1543851956.
The following set of observations come from the family wealth counselling firm Team Hewins. The authors address what happens when women divorce or suffer bereavement. These events can throw up a lot of unexpected and difficult challenges which add to what is almost always a painful time in a person’s life anyway. As this industry is regularly told, it is needs to improve how it serves women and heed their request for good advice given much more quickly and efficiently.
Ann came into the Team Hewins office crying and feeling that her life was ending. She had worked with her husband in their business. Now, as they were going through a divorce, some hard truths hit her: Her husband hadn’t filed a tax return in seven years and had not renewed her professional license. Their biggest asset was their home, and it was for sale. She knew she would receive some money from the sale of their house, but she wasn’t sure whether she would get any spousal support. Thankfully, their two children were grown and providing for themselves; still, she was devastated and anxious – as many would be in her position.
As in any situation, knowledge is power.
5, Avoid making financial decisions solely based on emotions
Visualization helps take the emotion out of decision making. Most women don’t want to look back and say, “I wish I had known that when I was making all the tough decisions.” They want to feel well-prepared and that we have their backs.
Patrice attended California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA where she earned a BS in agricultural business, concentrating on finance and appraisal, and holds a minor in wine and viticulture.