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Women and Estate Planning: The Female Elephant in the Room

When it comes to wise estate planning, there's an elephant in the room. Everyone can see her but she's rarely discussed: In aggregate, women live longer than men. In her recent MarketWatch piece, "How women can make estate planning easier" columnist Andrea Coombes points out a U.S. Census Bureau statistic that "36% of women 65 and older are widowed, compared with 12% of men 65 and older." That means, ready or not, there are three times as many widows as widowers out there shouldering the role of surviving spouse. That's a lot of woman-power.

While most couples are vaguely aware of these statistics, we have noticed a significant disconnect between acknowledging them versus properly factoring them into their family's financial and estate plans. Couples ignore the significance at their peril, as ill-suited choices can leave a surviving spouse at a discomforting disadvantage just when she most needs to know that her financial security is in place.

We encourage you to take a look at Coombes' piece for additional insights and ways that women can be left short-changed if their longer life expectancy is overlooked. Issues include establishing proper longevity for your household's retirement and pension plan payouts; ensuring beneficiary designations are kept relevant over time; coordinating ownership challenges that can arise during divorce, re-marriage and widowhood; and safeguarding a woman's place at the planning table when the family business undergoes succession planning.

But without getting too detailed in today's post, we want to leave you with one essential call to action that we believe is at the root of any others we might make. It's simple to say but one that many families find difficult to do: Whether you want to or not, both of you should be there when the planning takes place.

By "being there," we mean that both of you should participate as equally as possible in your household's financial interests by:

  • Attending key financial, investment, estate and family-business planning meetings
  • Being included in all related communications, upfront and ongoing
  • Being aware of what family assets exist, where they are held, and how they are being invested (It's best of all if you have a written Investment Policy Statement, to ensure continuity through the years and across any family members and advisors involved.)
  • Knowing who to call about what, when questions or requests arise

If the elephantine assumption is that the family matriarch is more likely than not going to be left in charge of the household wealth at some point, postponing her involvement and familiarity with these essential roles will only lead to additional heartache. This holds true regardless of which of you may be the family's bigger breadwinner, who claims to have more interest or affinity for managing money, or whose wealth it may be in the case of second marriages or similar relationships.

Moreover, even when one partner's intentions are nothing but noble, it never hurts to have two perspectives when considering key financial decisions that affect both of you (and potentially your children). When we're discussing family finances with a couple, it's not unusual for one partner to discover a perception, preference or idea that he or she never knew the other one had, often even years into a thriving relationship.

In short, just as a strong chain is comprised of strong links, so does a strong family call for empowered participation from every member. Nowhere is this more true than in a family's financial affairs.