Financial Advisor

May 2008

Grieving Spouses


Leonard Shaw has a list on his calendar of all the important people he’s lost: a sister, two brothers, his mother and his wife. Not surprisingly, the last one was particularly hard. He’s marked the date of her passing on the calendar right next to her name on the list: March 20, 2001.

He met his wife, Janis, when they were still teenagers. She was his high school sweetheart. They were married 50 years. She was the only girl he ever really dated.

But his wife suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and was sick and in pain for much of their marriage. When Shaw retired from being a school psychologist, he cared for his wife full time. In the end, she had cancer, heart problems and kidney failure. Given all the pain she was in, he says he was relieved when she finally passed—although it devastated him.

“I got my kids together and started gifting them money. I thought I didn’t need it. I wasn’t planning on living very long,” says Shaw, who is now 78. “I didn’t want to be around anyone. I just wanted to fade away, I guess. I was pretty lost.”

Shaw wasn’t rich, but he’d worked his whole life for a decent salary, had planned well financially, and was receiving pensions from the N.Y. State Teachers Retirement System and from TIAA-CREF.

“When I started gifting my kids money, my son, Scott, said, ‘Dad, I don’t need it.’ And my daughter, Kim, couldn’t get enough of it,” he says.

About that time, he began babysitting the dog who lived next door, while its owner, Sue, a nurse who was 15 years his junior, was at work. Shaw says the dog grew quite fond of him, following him back and forth as he mowed the lawn, and if Shaw went around the corner, the dog would bark until Shaw came back into sight. Five months later, he took Sue out for an ice cream cone. About a year-and-a-half later, they were married.

“I told her I’m not the catch of the day, but maybe she’d consider it. She said she already had, and she was interested,” Shaw says.

Thomas Crook, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Cognitive Research Corp. in St. Petersburg, Fla., says men appear to bounce back more quickly than women when they lose a spouse. While he acknowledges his observations are anecdotal, he says that when women lose their husbands, they have a tendency to go into a deep depression and suffer an inability to feel pleasure, a condition that can last a lifetime. Men, on the other hand, often remarry. They will miss their mate, but they are able to bond with someone else, he says.

“Males tend to be more resilient. They need to re-attach. And when they re-attach, their mood improves,” Crook says. “Females tend not to re-attach and to endure that mood.”

Crook blames part of it on the marketplace: Men die first, so the size of the market for older females is substantially smaller than it is for males. When it comes to finances, Crook says generally speaking, women will hunker down and become more conservative while men are more likely to view it as a new chapter in their lives. If anyone is going to behave erratically in this period, it’s men, Crook says.

“Females tend to retreat into the family. So they tend to reinforce those relationships with their children or grandchildren, and that is generally associated with conservatism. They’re less likely to gamble on things,” Crook says. “I think males, less often, retreat into the family. They’re looking for substitutes for their spouse, and that can lead to a whole new life.”

But that’s not true for everyone. Robert Westfall, a 47-year-old software engineer in Rochester, lost his wife four years ago, and he has not remarried. In fact he’s barely dating.

He and his wife of 14 years, Michele Stone, had a unique relationship that he doesn’t believe he’s likely to find again. He’d met her almost by happenstance after a friend asked him to tag along to a conference for a medieval re-creation group called the Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA. Stone, who was 14 years older than Westfall, was an SCA member and needed a ride. While she spent much of the weekend trying to introduce Westfall to women closer to his age, he wasn’t interested. When the conference ended, the two began dating.

About six years into the marriage, Stone’s health began to fail. Primary pulmonary hypertension destroyed her lungs, requiring her to have a lung transplant. The transplant eroded her immune suppression system forcing her onto dialysis. She ultimately died of a stroke. Stone was sick for so long that when she finally passed, Westfall says he was prepared for it. She’d been in and out of the hospital and rehab so often during the last several months that even the dogs got used to her being gone.

“It wasn’t like she got hit by a truck and died without warning,” Westfall says. “And I was pretty much running everything for the last couple of years anyway, with her on disability and not working. It was not a normal spousal relationship.”

Westfall says he didn’t fall into a deep depression, though he’s yet to deal with her possessions. He says he still has some of her family heirlooms, that both Stone’s brother and sister would like, but he can’t decide which items to part with, and so he holds onto all of them.

He imagines himself remarrying at some point. In fact he’s dating someone from the medieval re-enactment group, but he’s in no hurry to re-connect. “I’m not really good at relationships,” he says. “I’ve had one successful one, and that one was driven a lot by Michele.”

None of this is to say that men don’t mourn. In fact a study conducted last year by three finance professors from major business schools tracked the operating return on assets of 75,000 Danish companies two years before and after the CEO had experienced a family death. The study, conducted by three finance professors (Morten Bennedsen of the Copenhagen Business School, Francisco Pérez-González of the University of Texas and Daniel Wolfenzon of New York University), found that financial performance declined 21.4% after the loss of a child, 14.7% after the death of a spouse and about 8% after the demise of a parent or other family member. Still, the drops in profitability were apparently sharper at companies headed up by women.

There are no shortcuts around grief, says Mark Colgan, a CFP in Rochester, N.Y. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman: You just have to go through it. Colgan would know. He lost his wife seven years ago to complications from a congenital heart condition. She was 28. A financial planner with years of experience, Colgan says even he had a hard time managing his financial affairs after his wife died, mostly because he couldn’t concentrate.

“When people rush it, like changing the bank account titles, selling the house, making all of these mature but premature moves, it’s not helping matters,” Colgan says. “On the surface, it may appear they are moving out of their grief well, but is that the case? Or are they rushing themselves?”

It’s almost easier for people who become clinically depressed, because everyone around them can prepare for it and assist accordingly, says Colgan. What’s more profound is when someone’s depression goes undiagnosed, and yet it can lead to bad decisions. One of the most common, Colgan says, is moving.

“They think, let’s sell the house and move to Florida,” Colgan says. “From my personal experience, the reason people make a decision like that is because they hope the grieving will stop.”

People who are grieving—and this crosses gender lines—will do all kinds of things to try to outrun their loss. Joan Smith says that when her mother was dying, the doctors approached her father and asked him whether he wanted them to pull his wife off of the respirator. He said of course not, that he wanted them to do everything humanly possible to keep his wife alive.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Smith’s daughter, who asked that her family’s names be changed to save her father embarrassment. “My parents had an agreement that if this happened, they wouldn’t be kept alive by a machine. And there he was telling the doctors to do everything they could …”

They wound up taking Smith’s mother off of the respirator, and she died shortly thereafter. Her father saved the answering-machine message the doctor left in which he said, “I’m sorry to hear your wife is back in the hospital again.” And for the next 12 months, Smith’s father made it his mission to find out whether the hospital had made some error with regard to his wife’s care.

“He was a scientist. He was doing ‘research,’ “ Smith says, using her fingers to make quotation marks around the word “research.” He has since hooked up with someone else, but it took more than a year.

Advisors with widower clients say men who begin new relationships often face consequences that can be summed up in two words: The children. Sons and daughters sometimes fear the new woman will take their father away, try to replace their mother, and worse—steal the family fortune.

“I’ve seen it where the children have sunk the second marriage,” says Ken Anderson of Kochis Fitz/Quintile, a multifamily office based in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Anderson says one man hooked up with another woman so quickly, he wasn’t even finished grieving, and he was still in a very emotional state. The man was successful, financially, and the children feared the woman was a gold digger.

“It was a rebound marriage, and he was in a depressed state and wanted a companion, and the children got jealous of that and feared the companion had ulterior motives,” Anderson says. He notes that pre-nuptial agreements often allay those fears.

The men who don’t remarry quickly sometimes wind up spending a lot of money in this period, Anderson says. They’ll spend money on private chefs, maids, house managers. Anderson says he has clients who have a whole staff just to serve one person.

“The interesting thing is how they rely on that staff now, for support,” Ken says. “I have some clients who open up more to the staff than they did when they were married.”

Men may seek out new partners more quickly than women do because their lives change so much more dramatically when their wives die, says Linda Fitz, also of Kochis Fitz/Quintile. That is, a lot of women stayed home and ran the household, so while their day-to-day lives change when their husband dies, it’s not as stark a contrast as it is when a man’s wife dies.

“If the men are still working, they’re now coming home to an empty house,” Fitz says. “Men who have lost their wives are very at sea when it comes to dealing with household tasks and bill paying, because their spouses who weren’t working were always taking care of that kind of stuff. So we find ourselves offering bill paying services, Merry Maid services, even chefs.”

But while male clients may sometimes need more handholding on the home front than female clients, widowers can be easier to deal with when it comes to the finances. That’s because it’s often the men who handled the couple’s finances. So when it comes time to take stock of everything, men know where the bodies are buried. Women can be left scrambling because their husbands may have had accounts scattered in four different banks, two different stock portfolios and a variety of investments across the country.

It becomes a scavenger hunt, says Karl L. Hicks, a certified financial planner with The Leonard Financial Group LLC. Hicks says he had one female client where the only hints she had about the locations of her assets were the monthly or quarterly statements that would trickle in.

“Every time we thought we had everything, she would get another statement from somewhere else. I’m sure he knew where everything was, but it wasn’t put together in an orderly fashion,” Hicks says, adding, “We do find this happens more with widows than widowers.”

Some advisors—particularly female advisors—have an easier time when the surviving spouse is a man because it is often the man who forged the relationship with the advisor. Jan Valecka, CFP, owner of Valecka Wealth Management, in Lewisville, Texas, says one of her clients was a couple, but her real relationship was with the husband. So when the man died, Valecka had a hard time relating to his wife.

“I had a relationship with him, but then I had to re-establish a relationship with her. And she was a different personality,” Valecka says. “She was more fashionable, she liked to go out. I had to find out what things were important to her, from an investment standpoint.”

Making it harder was the fact that the woman seemed to prefer taking instructions rather than making her own decisions, Valecka says. “My style is more collaborative,” Valecka says. “With her, we have a good personal relationship. We’re both women, we’re both mothers. But sometimes, I get the feeling she is looking to me for direction, as far as what to do.”

In the end, advisors say it’s not really their responsibility—or their right—to tell their clients what to do, no matter how vulnerable they are at this juncture. “The best we can do is be aware of these circumstances so that when we present the information, we can be sensitive to how they’re digesting it,” says Rochester advisor Colgan.

Indeed Leonard Shaw says in retrospect, he shouldn’t have offered to give his children all that money. “It was a pretty stupid thing,” he says. “If I had to go into a nursing home, I would have been broke.” .