Every Valentine's Day, Joy Kirsch, a planner in Dallas, holds an event for friends and clients who - like her - are widows.

"Last year, she had tea for us and she bought us cups and saucers that were heart-shaped," says Judy Helms, a widow and longtime client of Kirsch's. "One year, we went to a chocolate place and had chocolate and wine. Always on Valentine's Day, we know we are going to be special to someone, and it will be to each other."

Now, with the help of many of her friends who are widows, Kirsch recently started the Widow's Journey, a nonprofit that helps women at all income levels find the resources they need to deal with the upheaval caused by losing a spouse. The group's website includes brochures, checklists, articles and information about books. Ultimately, there will be information about seminars.

The shock of widowhood inspired the focus of her planning practice, as well. Kirsch & Associates promotes its expertise in guiding its clients through life-changing events of all types, both positive or negative.

"Experts say that a transition event can cause cognitive impairment of up to 20%," the firm's website notes. "This temporary loss of brain bandwidth can lead to poor decision-making at a time when the decisions are the most critical."

Helms says she was stunned 12 years ago when her husband passed away. Kirsch "gave me the confidence to make decisions without him."

Kirsch can speak about the phenomenon from firsthand experience. In 1993, when she was 30, her husband committed suicide.

"I knew intellectually exactly the steps I needed to take because I was already a financial planner," Kirsch says. "But it was an experience of being a deer in the headlights and not being able to make the decisions I knew I needed to make. For me, it was a matter of not being able to get out of bed, not to mention do anything productive."

The Widow's Journey is geared toward helping women with both the emotional and financial issues that will confront them. In Kirsch's case, for example, at first she couldn't get enough credit for the planning business she ran with her husband. She discovered quickly that there appeared to be a bias on the part of lenders against women borrowers.

"We had the very same financials," Kirsch recalls, but "after he was deceased, he would get credit card offers for credit amounts that blew my mind and I couldn't get credit."

While dealing with these and other heavy emotional challenges, it took Kirsch four years to settle her husband's estate when it might have otherwise taken just six months, Kirsch recalls.

The problems that widows face immediately after the death of a spouse can often be exceptionally complex. With joint real estate investments in Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States, Kirsch's friend Nanci Masso, a Dallas entrepreneur, ended up having to settle the affairs in three countries of her late husband, who died of a heart attack. "I'm still in probate in Costa Rica, and it's been six years," says Masso, who's on the board of directors of the Widow's Journey.

"You feel such pressure all around you that you have got to make all these decisions," Masso says. "I had his kids and his companies and my companies. At the time, you are in such shock. If somebody's there who has been down that road and can give you a short cut, it is a huge help. ... I think trusting in someone like Joy who's been there and understands would have been a huge help at that time." Instead, she adds, several trusted advisors - including longtime friends of her husband - led her into risky and inappropriate investments.

It's not an uncommon experience, Kirsch says: "I've worked with several people through the Widow's Journey who have had very bad experiences because they trusted a friend who took advantage of them."

Kirsch said she started the web-based nonprofit for widows everywhere who need help but who cannot necessarily afford the services of a planning practice like hers.

"My minimum client AUM is $1million," Kirsch says, adding that the nonprofit doesn't provide financial advice. "There are a lot of women who need this information who are never going to be able to afford a planner. We give them tools and make them available through the Internet. This really came out as a desire to give back to the community. I really felt the need to share."

 

Ann Marsh is a senior editor and the West Coast bureau chief of Financial Planning.