Neglected heirs: widows who take over the family finances

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When Jane’s husband died in a climbing accident in the Alps, she faced not only shock and grief but a daunting pile of paperwork.

“It’s hard . . . having been married 43 years then all of a sudden your partner is not there any more and the world is on your shoulders,” says Jane, 72, who lives in Scotland.

In the midst of grief, she found it particularly difficult to sift through the couple’s financial records and make decisions about how to manage assets that were now solely in her charge.

Many more women of Jane’s generation will face similar challenges in the coming decades. A large portion of Britain’s wealth is currently held by the baby boomer generation born between 1944 and 1964, most often by couples, in which men frequently manage the finances.

But that situation is set to change, as men of this age pass on and women, on average, outlive their husbands and assume independent control of family wealth.

This asset shift puts pressure on the UK’s £1.8tn wealth management industry, which for decades has been geared toward courting male clients, according to financial advisers.

Many firms have long been preoccupied with generational transfers of wealth, when children inherit assets from their parents. Families have themselves focused on this asset handover, which often comes with big inheritance tax (IHT) issues.

But demographic shifts are driving an unprecedented wave of spouse-to-spouse transfers in the baby boomer generation — and calls for better support for surviving partners, especially widows.

“It is a global issue, this transfer of wealth, and the underserving of female investors,” says Lady Helena Morrissey, chair of investment platform AJ Bell.

The advice gap

The death of a spouse often calls for the review of wills and estate planning as well as the business of obtaining probate. Rebalancing portfolios, selling properties or passing on assets are among the actions which may all suddenly be on the agenda; all at a time of emotional turmoil.

Wealth transfers between spouses or civil partners are free of inheritance tax in the UK, both during lifetime and on death, unlike many transfers on death to other heirs, including children.

But the death of a first parent is frequently an opportunity to take stock of many issues, including the tax position. “When dealing with the probate on the first death, there is often an opportunity to put in place further measures to ensure that wealth is passed down the generations in a tax-efficient manner,” says James Austen, partner at Collyer Bristow, a law firm.

By 2025, it is estimated that women will hold 60 per cent of Britain’s wealth, having inherited most of it from their deceased spouses, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research. Yet a survey from Schroders found that only 7 per cent of wealth managers have dedicated strategies in place to retain, attract and advise female clients.

Although many couples defy the stereotypes, the dominant pattern in the baby boom generation was that men in “breadwinner” roles would make the most important financial decisions, says Eliza Filby, an academic and author, who conducted research for Schroders on the transfer of wealth to women.

Filby, who interviewed more than 30 women between the ages of 50 and 75 for her research, argues that the growing power of widows over the UK’s private wealth has been under-appreciated, as many in the financial sector concentrate their attention on the pending transfer to younger generations.

Gillian Hepburn, head of UK intermediary solutions at Schroders, argues this focus must change. She says: “The first point of transfer is usually from husband to wife.”

The wealth management industry has also played into societal norms, focusing their relationships on husbands, according to Julie Sebastianelli, wealth management director at Mattioli Woods.

Quite often there’ll be the sort of golf course mentality, of having close relationships between the male and the advisers — and possibly the wife does not get that same trusting relationship,” says Sebastianelli.

Research by the Financial Conduct Authority, the UK watchdog, found that financial services have “low gender diversity”, with women making up around 17 per cent of all FCA-approved professionals, including financial advisers, in 2019.

This may be one reason that, in the US, 70 per cent of widows ditch their financial adviser within the first year of their partner’s death, according to consultancy firm McKinsey. Some British wealth professionals expect similar attitudes in the UK and have urged the industry to adapt to serve female clients better.

“A lot of the industry is at risk because it has not got the relationship with the right people,” says Morrissey. She likens some in the industry to King Canute who, according to legend, tried to stop the tide coming in. “You’re just going to be washed over . . . if you don’t see the need to change.” 

Denise March, 78, counts herself lucky to have had a financial adviser before her husband passed away, as this helped prepare her for managing her money. The advice relationship was also an inheritance, from Denise’s oldest friend Sigrid, who left her £300,000. Denise accepted the legacy from her childhood friend and took on Sigrid’s financial adviser too.

“I don’t think everybody would get my luck,” says Denise, one of the women Filby interviewed for her research. Denise is conscious that for many other women in her position taking on responsibility for family assets can be more daunting.

Carla Morris, wealth director at Brewin Dolphin, says her female clients tend to doubt that they have enough wealth to qualify for financial advice. “Any man coming in as a potential client has never asked me [if he was] suitable as a client but I’ve had more than one woman ask me, when they absolutely should not have done.”

Male bias

Women often feel alienated by the financial advice industry. Almost three-quarters of women think that the sector is biased against them, according to a report from WealthiHer, a women’s wealth research network.

Anna Sofat, founder of Addidi, a financial planning adviser focused on women, says that many of the industry’s processes were built by men for men. “Rather than making a joint account . . . databases automatically assume that the first client is the male and everything is geared to the first client,” she says.

“The first thing I would do is try to bring the partner into the relationship a lot earlier,” says Sofat. But although joint meetings are increasingly encouraged by firms, she finds that advisers often end up speaking exclusively to husbands. She recommends separate meetings for women to ask questions freely.

Female advisers deplore what they describe as a clubby masculine culture, which may be particularly off-putting to women in times of grief.

“When a person dies, I have to say the industry is appalling,” says Sofat. Some of her clients recall pushy advisers showing up to their husband’s funeral, and pressing them to sign over assets in the weeks after their husband’s death.

What women want

Some women find it easier to get advice from other women. This is the case for Gill, who found her adviser, Sarah Roughsedge, through the “for women, by women” programme that Roughsedge launched at her advisory firm with her husband.

Her experience shaped discussions with her husband on how best to improve the service offering at their office. “We came on to the discussion of how to better serve female clients . . . and if that was my experience as a female in the profession, what must a female client’s experience be like?”

Gill first sought advice when her husband was diagnosed with a “small and aggressive” cancer which he was not expected to survive. They each had children from previous marriages and she needed help figuring out what would go to his children and what would go to her.

But at the age of 57, Gill went “from one day being told everything in the garden is rosy with [her] husband” to “the following day [being] told [she had] a terminal diagnosis” herself. This was when Sarah became a crucial support for her.

“I do think women are far more empathetic, for women going through divorce, through serious illness or who have got challenges,” says Gill. In her view, her peers are better able to appreciate her concerns as a mother and listen to her needs without judgment.

But some experts say that finding the right adviser is about more than gender. “There’s no right or wrong to this, it’s all about relationships . . . There are some fabulous male advisers who build very good and very strong relationships with their clients . . . it’s all about personal dynamics”, says Sebastianelli of Mattioli Woods.

Women who have just lost their spouses might also need a different kind of engagement from a financial planner. Many advisers have noted that the length of the onboarding stage differs for women. “[It] takes a lot longer from when we first meet them to that initial stage of getting financial planning in place,” says Roughsedge.

Sarah Roughsedge © Millie Pilkington

This is especially true when they have just lost the person whom they used as a sounding board for important life decisions. “The number of meetings during that time is a lot. You need them to process. There are a lot of touch points,” says Nicola Crosbie, an adviser with St James’s Place, the wealth manager.

Jane, who is one of Crosbie’s clients, said that in the aftermath of her husband’s death she found it difficult to process information.

“My brain wasn’t absorbing this kind of stuff well at all . . . it took a couple of years before I felt like I was beginning to function normally,” she said. Crosbie even came to her house to help her organise her paperwork.

A shift in investment style 

As women take more independent control over family wealth, they are also set to change how their assets are managed. Some studies suggest that women take less risk than men when it comes to investing. According to research from WealthiHer, British men are three times more likely than women to be classified as highly sophisticated investors. In the 55 to 64 age group, 27 per cent of men are likely to invest in stocks and shares compared with only 8 per cent of women of the same age.

However, experienced advisers warn against self-reinforcing stereotypes and say that women do not always shy away from more complex or risky investments. “They’re just more risk aware or want to know more about what they’re investing in,” says Morris at Brewin Dolphin.

Sofat finds that women take more time to reflect and ask questions. “I haven’t come across a woman who doesn’t know what she wants, except that we have to give them the space to tell us.”

Brooks Macdonald cites research from Boston Consulting Group, which found that “too many banks and firms rely on broad assumptions about what women are looking for, resulting in products, services and messaging that can feel superficial at best and condescending at worst”.

The UK wealth manager this month launched a series of events across the country aimed at wealthy women. “The industry as a whole has come a long way to be more inclusive, but we can’t deny the fact that there are still a lot of women who aren’t investing,” says Andrew Shepherd, Brooks Macdonald chief executive.

Research also suggests women are especially concerned about the social and ecological impact of their wealth. Another study from WealthiHer found that 79 per cent of British women care about social investing, and 89 per cent care about environmental investing. By comparison, 65 per cent and 70 per cent of men respectively care about these characteristics.

After reassessing her portfolio with her adviser, Jane says she “was able to talk to her more about my personal awareness of things like ethical investment”. 

Although responsible investing is rising in popularity among all investors, Roughsedge noticed that women tend to instigate those conversations more often than men. “We don’t need to drill down on where they stand on the green spectrum.”

Solace in self-reliance

Despite the often daunting challenge of mastering money management while grieving, some women have found unexpected joy in making their money work for them.

Jane, for instance, started to send more money to help her family members in the US. This had been on her mind for years. But being left to make financial decisions for herself, rather than in a partnership, allowed her to send them more money than previously.

According to Filby, it is common for widows to set new priorities, as couples rarely share the same attitudes towards money. She said women more often spend money on their families or pass on wealth while they are still alive, rather than holding back the inheritance. Gifts to grandchildren — or anyone else — are “very tax efficient,” says Austen.

Denise gives her grandchildren a monthly “nan allowance” so that they can buy non-essential luxuries which their parents won’t pay for. She likes to pay for her grandchildren’s train fare so that they can visit her in London.

Filby also expects the pandemic to have accelerated the trend of more women wanting to spend money on sharing experiences with their loved ones, and says that many women find it empowering to take control of their finances.

Denise, for instance, has drawn satisfaction from arranging for all of her children and grandchildren to spend a holiday together at her house in Greece.

She says: “Apart from being secure financially I’m lucky to have good health. There’s nothing like having a family and children with grandchildren.”

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