Widow on Wall Street
Sep 29, 2015
I spent my first day in New York at my bank’s Investor Day, not something I was likely to do before 2009. About 200 people were in the room to hear top analysts, bankers and portfolio managers discuss finance and investments. Less than 10 percent of the attendees, including bank staff, were women. Were all of those men widowed or divorced? Where were their wives? I spotted a handful of couples, but most of the women were alone—presumably, like me, single and responsible for oversight of their assets.
In my book, Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows, I write about my extraordinary struggle to understand and manage Lev’s business interests after his death—one week before Tax Day I should add, within a month of the bottom of the market in 2009. However, I have avoided writing about the financial component of grief in my blogs. Too personal, too revealing… But looking around the room today, I decided that I should not avoid it any longer. This is merely the first, introductory blog on the subject.
I was the smiling spouse and gracious hostess when it came to business, ready to meet Lev’s professional advisors for lunch and dinner, but not for serious business. At least I had met them. But that was not all good. After his death, some of them were patronizing and some took advantage. They underestimated me.
Five years later, a financial advisor who met me then, wrote, “During your married life you were in some ways the stereotypical spouse who was either excluded from financial decisions or who sat quietly during the meetings. The knock on such spouses is that they are woefully unprepared for the responsibility of leading the family after dad’s passing. Some even take for granted that the widow must be inadequate given the husband’s decision to treat them this way. I think even some of the widows take this for granted! Not so, in your case. You made the choice to step into those shoes and worked hard to make sure you did it well. You brought certain gifts to the challenge, but many aspects of it were daunting and required extraordinary effort.”
Through the years, Lev repeatedly told me that I did not need to know his business because “they will be here for you.” They were not. He said, “Everything you need is in the four-drawer locked file cabinet.” It was not. The bank quickly resigned in a horror story I may tell later. The family met almost immediately with Lev’s attorney and accountant to begin the whole big process of filing for probate, settling the estate and finding new financial advisors. I summoned the courage to tackle Lev’s office.
Since 1975 Lev and his partner had occupied office space on the same floor in a downtown bank building. When his partner retired from active involvement in their small oil-and-gas company, Lev reduced the size of his office. After their longtime secretary died, he relied on an answering machine and an accountant who officed one floor up. He worked with the decorator, filling his new space with furniture and mementoes from his family, including his grandfather’s big desk. For months after his death, I made the same daily trip that he enjoyed so much: To pick up mail at the downtown post office, a haven for the homeless, and then to the parking garage, service stairs, crosswalk to his building, and down long halls to Suite 600. I felt like an intruder searching through his space. I dared not throw away a scrap of paper without examining it first. This was work I had to do alone.
I moved the Wall Street Journal to home delivery, and it became my financial textbook. I labored over the Journal every day, with Barron’s Finance & Investment Handbook—all 1,220 pages—at my side so that I could look up every unfamiliar word, acronym, and phrase. I was terrified by my responsibilities. Lev had taken very good care of us. Now it was my turn, and I was not equipped.
Let’s examine the data:
Most of us will be widows. There are 11 million of us in the U.S., 5 million between 50 and 75, 800,000 new widows a year, median age 59.4.
Twenty percent will slip into poverty within five years. Thirty-seven percent will have reduced income. But here is what is really shocking:
A 25-year study concluded that “70 percent of wealth transitions fail, where failure is defined as involuntary loss of control of the assets, whether through taxes, economic losses, litigation or any other financial reversal…. Most of the causes resided in the family itself.” Only three percent of the losses could be blamed on poor professional advice and management, 60 percent on breakdown of family communication and trust, 25 percent on inadequately prepared heirs and 12 percent on failure to establish a family mission.
I paid for my ignorance. In fact, the whole family paid. For more than a year, I poured over papers at my desk all day and again after dinner until I was too tired to hold my head up any longer. My daughter exclaimed, “Dad didn’t expect you to work like this. Grandma didn’t do this.”
No, he didn’t. And she didn’t. But he could not predict the Great Recession. I could not know that advisors whom he had worked with and trusted for years would not be there for me. I had no choice.
Adapted from my book-in-progress, Reclaiming Joy.
 Williams, Roy and Preisser, Vic. Preparing Heirs: Five Steps to a Successful Transition of Family Wealth and Values. San Francisco: Robert D. Reed, Publisher, 2003. Cited in “Educating the Next Generation,” G. Scott Clemons, Brown Brothers Harriman Quarterly Investment Journal. 3, 2015.