Benjamin Birken attempts to give his elderly clients, whose spouses have been diagnosed with a fatal illness, the benefit of "a slow long runway." By that Birken means time to prepare and make any long-lasting decisions prior to the death.

Such decisions are best made before the spouse's passing, since survivors during the grieving process might find reasoning and concentration impossible, Birken says. "Giving people a big checklist of tasks a week after their spouse dies is a nonstarter," according to Birken, a CFP with Woodward Financial Advisors in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Before the death, Birken tries to make sure the likely surviving spouse possesses "solid knowledge" of all assets titles, life insurance policy contacts, potential Social Security benefit changes, retirement account beneficiaries, and even more mundane concerns -- like whose name is on utility bills.

The client, who is often the one caring for the dying spouse, needs handholding to get those tasks done; anyone's powers of concentration might dim under such circumstances. Birken asks the spouses of a dying client to come into his office, so he may help them in person, making calls and gathering the necessary information. Other advisors engage in video chats and webinars to make sure they can supervise online the spouse who expects to be widowed soon.


Deaths among his aging clients are becoming common enough that Joe Birkofer and his partner plan to put money in their budget next year, earmarked for the cost of attending out-of-town funerals, says Birkofer, a partner at Legacy Asset Management in Houston.

His go-to first assignment for elderly clients facing the very near prospect of losing their spouse: Determine how all the assets are titled. Often, a couple's bank account will list only one spouse's name; adding a surviving spouse's name prior to a death significantly streamlines the process of making necessary arrangements immediately following the person's passing, Birkofer says. He also asks clients to retrieve all account passwords while their spouse remains cognizant.

Like Birken, Birkofer invites the dying client's spouse into his office to supervise them and make sure the tasks get done. He gently stresses the urgency of the to-do list. "Remember all the planning you and your spouse [Birkofer names him or her] did. It's time to make sure that works," Birkofer tells the clients

Will clients contact him fast enough when a spouse is diagnosed with a fatal illness? That's not much of a concern, Birkofer says. "When you are the guy with the money, they let you know what's happening," he says.

Miriam Rozen is a staff writer for Texas Lawyer who writes about financial advisors.

This story is part of a 30-day series on better serving seniors.

Miriam Rozen

Miriam Rozen, a Financial Planning contributing writer, is a staff reporter at Texas Lawyer in Dallas.