When it comes to working with mid-life and senior widows and widowers, accounting professionals are poised to provide value rarely offered well – or at all – by anyone else.
When a spouse passes, survivors are often in a fog of grief, yet find themselves having to make quick, pressing decisions around burial and memorial services, estate administration, and, in some cases, competing priorities among family members. As time progresses, additional issues seep in, such as settling outstanding medical bills and the huge question of where to live – if their health, finances, sudden solitude, or inability to manage their homes alone prompts the need to move.
Understanding the need to get an assessment of the home’s value to take advantage of a step-up in cost basis, deciding whether to trigger a capital gains exemption up to $500,000 on the matrimonial home, if eligible, and knowing whether to file “married filing jointly” to get better tax rates are all areas where accountants play an important advisory role. Once time-sensitive decisions like these have been made, accountants can play an additional, vital role among mature clients, especially with women. It’s a fact that women are less financially literate when compared to men, as noted by the TIAA Institute in their 2020 data. Plus, women live longer and end up solo more often. More than 77 percent of the widows and widowers in this country are women. Half of widows over age 65 will outlive their husbands by 15 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So, while helping clients optimize their retirement income and preserve their net worth is critical, keep in mind that it can be especially daunting for women.
When I was widowed, financial advisors, bankers, and funeral industry experts provided tips, but no one pointed out the two risks here – romance and remarriage in later years. These information tidbits fell into an “advice chasm” that no one broached, yet each is significantly related to financial health.
Over time, most widows and widowers embark on rebuilding their lives regardless of age, and this often involves finding a new life partner. The number of seniors who engage in online dating is growing so much so that before COVID-19, online dating “how to” programs for seniors started springing up in public libraries, as a result of singles asking librarians for help setting up online dating sites and even wiring money.
Romance scams are an insidious and growing type of fraud. Targets of these scams are most often women, the elderly, and people who have lost a spouse, although the crime affects singles in the online dating realm across the range of income, age, and education brackets. More than 23,000 people were victims of romance scams last year in 2020, losing more than $600 million – a number keeps growing year over year, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
What happens is that high-tech con artists reach out on social media, dating platforms, or by email, inventing profiles and using other people’s pictures. They weave intricate stories of personal hardship or tragedy to trump a widow or widower’s tragedy, for example, and are very artful at building intense, romantic relationships. They can’t meet in person, often giving the excuse that they live or work abroad, and are also very adept at eliciting money for some invented crisis, or for plane fare, on the pretense of finally meeting in person.
Women, the elderly, and people who have recently lost their spouse are vulnerable for a myriad of reasons. They are more likely to be living alone and at increased risk of social isolation. If they’re a member of the silent generation, they were usually raised to be nice and trusting. They could also be experiencing chronic illness and hearing loss, which isolates them even further. Lastly, they are a preferred target because they are not only more likely to have savings and high equity in their homes, but also reluctant to report fraud. They are too usually ashamed or don’t know who to report it to.
Timing a remarriage
Almost everyone is told about the small Social Security death benefit. On the other hand, the ins and outs of Social Security’s widow or widower’s benefit are not common knowledge, but can be very generous.
As early as age 60, a qualified widow or widower may receive up to 71.5 percent of their late spouse’s full Social Security benefit. They can even switch to their own full benefits if eligible and higher, at full retirement age. The same applies to surviving divorced spouses who were married at least 10 years – they can get benefits as if they were a surviving widow or widower.
Focus on helping your clients
Romance scams and the Social Security survivors’ benefits don’t fall into the scope of what accountants traditionally advise clients on. Timing and delicacy are definitely needed when approaching these subjects. However, as arm’s length, trusted advisors, you are probably in the best position to recognize risk for social isolation or financial naiveté, provide convincing advice about online dating scams, and point out what a badly timed walk to the altar could disqualify a client from. Consider being proactive about helping mature clients avoid additional loss and possibly find joy in their next life phase. You could make a bigger impact than most people realize – one that helps get a mortgage paid off, funds home-care, or underwrites whatever a seasoned heart desires.