Only 42% of couples who have advisors work with them jointly, according to a new Fidelity study  -- and that’s a problem, according to experts at the custodial operation. In the remaining 58% of couples, male partners manage the advisor relationship while their significant others don’t participate.

“If wives don’t have that relationship, one on one with their advisor, what we are hearing from women is, ‘I have no allegiance to that advisor,’” says Jylanne Dunne, senior vice president of practice management and consulting for Fidelity Institutional Wealth Services. “Our bottom line is that is the big [challenge] for advisors is: They have to find a way to engage with [wives] directly.”

Fidelity Investments’ 2013 Couples Retirement Study analyzed retirement and financial expectations and preparedness among 808 couples. Participants were at least 25 years old, married or in a long-term committed relationship and living with their respective partner. All respondents had a minimum household income of $75,000 or at least $100,000 in investable assets.

The good news for planners: About 80% of female respondents have no intention to fire an advisor, the study found. But in reality, women still do tend to leave an advisor after a husband's death, said Brian Nelson, vice president of practice management at National Financial, Fidelity’s clearing division, in an announcement of the study's findings.


Because most wives outlive their husbands, men voiced concerns about leaving their wives unprepared to handle their financial affairs without them, Dunne says. Although she found it surprising, she says -- “because it then begs the question, why aren’t they doing anything about it?” -- that concern also gives advisors an opening to start discussing what can often be a touchy subject, she says.

In many cases, the advisor can even be a facilitator: The study found that many individuals were more comfortable talking to their advisors than to their partners about such difficult financial topics as death and inheritance.

Fidelity suggests that advisors be frank with their current male clients -- acknowledging concerns about a spouse's level of preparation, and asking them to bring their wives to future meetings.

Fidelity is actually offering a nine-question financial compatibility quiz  -- originally developed for its retail customers and since retooled for RIA usage -- intended to help advisors start a conversation with both members of a couple, says Dunne. She recommends that advisors ask new clients to take the quiz before attending an initial meeting.


The Fidelity study also broke down generational and other differences among respondents. Among the other findings:

  • While women were more than twice as likely as men to say their significant other was the primary contact for an advisor (31% vs. 13% of men), this trend was even more prevalent in younger women. Among Gen Y women, 41% said their partner was the primary contact with an advisor, compared with 33% of Gen X women and 28% of boomer women.
  • While the majority of women do have an interest in the advisor relationship -- only 15% said they had no interest in interacting with their advisor -- the most common reason (53% of respondents) they had ceded control of the advisor relationship was that they trust their partner. Another 33% of women said their partner had a personal relationship with the advisor.
  • More than half of women (52%) were confident in their partners’ ability to assume full financial responsibility for retirement finances and strategy. Yet men did not share the same level of confidence; only 43% were confident in their partners’ ability to assume full financial responsibility of retirement finances. (And only 45% of the women surveyed were confident in their own ability to take financial control.)
  • Four in 10 respondents (43%) were more comfortable talking with their advisor than with their partner about certain topics -- particularly such difficult issues as retirement decisions, estate planning and wills.

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