Approximately 1,000 Twin Cities women are widowed each year, but that statistic didn’t hit home fully for Chris Bentley of St. Louis Park until a personal tragedy struck. In 2017, Bentley’s colleague Dave Laurion died of a heart attack at age 62, leaving Dave’s wife, Liane, to pick up the pieces. Bentley, a Twin Cities financial adviser and certified financial planner, quickly realized the dearth of resources available to widows to help them get back on their financial feet. With Liane as his inspiration, Bentley started the nonprofit Wings For Widows (wingsforwidows.org), which offers free services, including financial coaching, during this difficult time. He shares more about the public charity below.
Q: Liane’s personal story opened your eyes about the challenges widows face. What did you learn?
A: It’s very clear that widows are not prepared for the aftermath of loss. Dave died, but his story didn’t end. As a result of his death, Liane became my client in February of 2017. I worked with her all year long. That December, she was reflecting on how good she felt about the future financially. She was still grieving, but she was confident about her financial life. But the women in her grief group were still struggling.
Q: So, an idea was born?
A: I asked her if she wanted me to talk to them. I spent two hours chatting with six widows in various stages of recovery. We cried, we laughed. I’ve worked with many widows over the years, but as I heard their stories I realized that, even if they had financial advisers, they were still struggling and, worse, were using each other for their primary financial advice. I thought there must be an organization out there to help these women and there wasn’t. So we created one.
Q: What are the typical concerns among new widows?
A: It runs the gamut; financial and legal issues, ownership changes and insurance, bills and debt management, budgeting and tax returns. Research from an American College State Farm Center survey shows that about 86% of widows and widowers have never made major financial decisions before losing their spouse. So, on top of the loss and grief, the to-do list can be overwhelming.
Q: Is this more true with older widows than younger women, since the latter are more likely to be working full-time with financial protections in place?
A: We haven’t seen any big difference in who’s managing the household finances. It’s still generally the husband who oversees it. We do see more confusion and panic with our older widows. Widows with young children fall into a whole different category that requires additional support and resources. She might say, “I have to work. We’ve gone from two incomes to one and I’m nowhere near social security age.” It’s often life-altering for young widows.
Q: But it’s stressful for everybody.
A: Nearly 70% of women of all ages responding to the State Farm survey said that being the sole financial decisionmaker is the most challenging aspect of being a widow.
Q: How does your coaching begin?
A: We offer a 3-minute progress check on our website to determine the extent of pro bono financial coaching that will be helpful. Every widow’s situation is different. She then schedules an introductory meeting with us where she can meet her financial coach and one of our widow advocates, who will continue to manage her case for the duration of her engagement with us.
Q: How soon do you like to begin working with a widow?
A: We’ve had widows call us one week after their spouse’s death and we advise them that it’s too soon. We suggest that we reconnect in 60 days. In the interim, we might say, “Make sure you take care of this or that, but get some rest.” We find that our assistance is most effective at the 90-day mark or so, but we’ve worked with widows two years after their loss. Depending on the complexity of their situation, we may need to meet a few times or many. Generally, six months seems sufficient to wrap it up.
Q: What does your “advocacy” service look like?
A: We are very protective of our widows. We work to protect them from becoming victimized. We help them protect their credit and identity. We’ll connect them with reputable people and resources. For example, we worked with a low-income widow who had no budget, few assets and no financial support to stay where she was living. We worked on her behalf with creditors. We negotiated better rates with her insurance and cable companies. We got her a social worker, who is working with her to keep her in her home.
Q: Do you plan to expand?
A: Our one-on-one coaching currently is only available in the Twin Cities. Because we don’t charge for our services, it’s hard to drive to St. Cloud a dozen times, but we’re more than happy to work with someone if she can drive to the Twin Cities. Widows across the state can e-mail us with questions or call us to talk about things.
Q: How many women have you helped?
A: We were hoping to assist 100 widows by the end of this first year; we’re at about 40. We’ve always thought, though, that if we helped one woman, we proved our reason to exist.
Q: What advice would you give to people lucky enough to still have their spouse or partner?
A: Prepare. If you’re a woman, you’re likely to outlive your husband. Certain things should be done for any family, including preparing a will and having a power of attorney in place. But, according to AARP, only about 40% of clients do.