Dealing with Death or Divorce

The death of a loved one and the ending of a marriage or civil union by divorce can be amongst the most painful transitions to go through. Fortunately, if you assemble the right team, you can reduce your stress and lean on professionals for help. We have helped many widows, widowers divorcees, and the newly single adjust to their new circumstances.

Here is one story based on an actual client (names and personal details have been changed):

Gail and Michael were in their early 60’s with one adult child.  Michael was an acquaintance of ours.  He had received a diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer 2 years prior.  Both Gail and Michael had successful international careers in their fields, but because of his diagnosis Michael decided that he would retire at age 62 to enjoy his remaining years; Gail was still working.  Michael was the financial decision-maker in the family and managed one of their portfolios.  They maintained two other managed accounts at Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch.

Who will oversee our finances when I die? Have I done everything that I can to transfer my estate properly?  Who can I trust to step into my shoes and look out for Gail’s best interests?

We began our engagement with a review of their significant assets.  Our analysis revealed that they were paying extremely high fees through the brokerage and the investment results were mediocre.  Furthermore, although they thought that having multiple managers would lead to diversification, we found that they actually held concentrated positions in some holdings when all accounts were considered together.  We suggested a stock/bond portfolio that was aligned to their risk tolerance and geared to producing income in retirement for Gail.  We recommended laddered bonds of different maturities and individual stocks that have no carrying cost. We also discovered several individual accounts in Michael’s name; changing these to joint accounts and adding transfer on death designations helped them avoid estate issues.  When Michael died several years later, we visited Gail at her house to help her with paperwork and answer questions that she had on Michael’s life insurance and pension options.  Gail moved all the Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch accounts to our management and continues to live comfortably in retirement.  Our role as a fiduciary and our knowledge of her finances has helped her with this transition.

Death of a Loved One

The death of a spouse or partner triggers many decisions for the survivor.  Some are immediate in nature, such as planning the funeral, while others can be deferred for some time.  In general, the best advice for a surviving spouse is to take some time, avoid making rash decisions, and assemble a support group.  Your friends, family, and therapist may provide the necessary emotional support that you need at this difficult period.  The professional support group should include your trusted advisors: lawyer, accountant, and financial advisor or planner.  This team can provide the knowledge and expertise to help you avoid costly mistakes and simplify the process for you.

As financial planners, we can assist you with such items as:

  • Managing your finances
  • Interpreting and understanding your survivor benefits
  • Opening, transferring and/or retitling accounts
  • Filing any beneficiary claims for retirement plan assets
  • Assessing your cash flow and setting up income streams

We will work closely with you to evaluate how the death of your spouse will impact your financial plan.  Adjustments may need to be made to your spending if your income has declined.  Scenarios like selling the family home, moving to a different state, or liquidating other assets can be evaluated with our help.  If there are proceeds from life insurance or annuities, we can recommend investment strategies and/or debt reductions that help you meet your financial goals and implement them for you.


When a marriage ends through a divorce, the loss is similar to the death of a loved one.  However, there are some decided differences in the steps that the couple goes through.  First, time is of the essence.  We recommend assembling a team including a mediator, divorce attorney, psychologist, and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER.  Each has a valid role to play in helping you navigate the divorce proceedings effectively.

Since divorce is the process of splitting up your assets, debts, and cash flows you will need to produce detailed records on your financial life.  This can be painful and difficult, particularly for the partner who was not the primary financial person.  As financial planners, we are available to answer questions and assist in the process.

Post-divorce, we also help individuals develop a new budget and set goals.  One of the most difficult decisions is typically whether to keep the family home.  We can run the numbers to see if it is affordable, factoring in the mortgage, real estate taxes, insurance, and maintenance.

Once finalized, it is important to review the titling and beneficiaries on your financial accounts.  These will likely need to be updated.  We can assist with the paperwork on any accounts that we manage for you.  As part of our post-divorce planning, we will also evaluate your holdings and asset allocation to see if any changes need to be made to match your goals and risk tolerance now that you are single.

Death of a spouse and divorce are stressful life events.  Our goal is to help our clients through this and provide the knowledge and support needed to transition to a new life.