Throughout my career I have had many clients lose spouses — usually it’s the women who lose their husbands. Statistically, woman over 65 outlive their husbands by 15 years. Unfortunately, my husband and business partner, Herb Shapiro, recently passed away, and I have become part of the statistic.

In the past when I had worked with widows, I had always tried to be compassionate and supportive but wondered how they were pulling it off. I often thought, “Could I be like them?” Could I sit in a financial planner’s office and discuss how much the funeral costs, sign the papers to transfer my husband’s retirement plan into my name or remove his name from our joint account, all while not bursting into tears? “I’m a softy,” I thought. My tears would be like the crumbs left behind by Hansel and Gretel. I now know how they pull it off — they steel themselves walking in the door and cry all the way home.

Barbara Shapiro, president of HMS Financial Group
Barbara Shapiro, president of Dedham, Massachusetts-based RIA HMS Financial Group, says taking over the firm after her husband’s death was a “personal journey.”

Well, here I am now looking widowhood in the face and I’m pulling it off. I hired myself.

As a way of explanation, when we married 33 years ago, I was a special needs teacher and didn’t know the difference between a stock, bond and mutual fund. I thought a stock was like money and didn’t realize that its value fluctuated. I was my typical widowed client. I truly know how they feel. The only difference is that I am now financially sophisticated and not financially scared to death.

Herb drafted me into this business, tutored me, mentored me and educated me. I owe him my professional life. Yes, I did the work, passed the exams and slowly learned the business.

We always shared everything. When a new client came in, we each built a financial plan and met to defend our choices. We ultimately chose the best combination — no egos, just the best plan for the client.

We, now I, own a successful financial planning and investment firm. Being in business with a spouse presents its own set of problems in this situation. I am lucky in that my husband was cognitively intact and could discuss things with me.

A few months before he died, he stopped seeing clients. I started to run the office, see all the clients and make all investment decisions several months before he died. I am professional and in fact have been able to focus and do my job well because the office is a place where I can be “normal.” People assume that a new widow is a flake and can’t concentrate on her job. I have spoken to other people in my position, but that is simply not necessarily true.

How am I going forward? The same way my widowed clients go forward — one step and one day at a time.

That’s my personal journey. But I own a business, so I have a responsibility to my clients and my staff.

I pull into my parking space at the office, look into the mirror, straighten my makeup and put my heart in my pocket. I am an intelligent, well-educated, in-control woman who takes her responsibilities very seriously.

My staff is competent and cross-trained. I have chosen to use a team approach to leadership as opposed to a linear one where it’s my way or the highway. That being said, I make the ultimate decisions on all matters.

When my husband got sick I instituted several new procedures. They may sound trite and inconsequential, but there is a logical and important reason I did this: it gave me order and structure.

My personal life was in total chaos yet my work life was structured and as orderly as a financial planning firm can possible be. In addition, the structure allowed me to take some items off my plate. In fact, I have continued using this approach.

  • When a client emails a request, I forward the email to the staff member who normally handles that request. I want to make sure that the request is taken care of whether I am available or not.
  • I always met with various staff members at the end of the day, but now we have started to meet several times throughout the day so everything is covered if I have to be out of the office for an appointment.
  • I bunch appointments together, which, again, will give me the ability to leave the office if necessary.
  • I am always prepared for meetings a couple of days in advance, but now I have extended that to a week to 10 days. Knowing my work is done and I am properly prepared for client meetings gives me peace of mind.
  • I am still in a “do it now” mentality. We historically calculate and monitor the clients RMD withdrawals. Normally we start to do the calculations in early November. This past year, we finished with them in early November. In addition, I always paid our corporate bills in a timely fashion, but now I pay them as soon as they come in. Again, one less thing to do.
  • I was honest with clients about the seriousness of Herb’s illness.

Earlier I said I hired myself. A large percentage of my practice is divorce financial analysis. I tell my clients not to make any large decisions or changes for at least 2-3 years, keep their lives on an even keel and make decisions based on fact, not emotion. From the decision perspective, being a widow is not dissimilar from being divorced, except one may be voluntary and the other is not.

I have found 99.9% of my clients are very supportive. A few have asked what my long-term plans are. I am renewing my lease not because of the money — although that is nice — but more because I want the structure and normalcy of work. As a tribute to my husband, HMS Financial Group will flourish, perhaps dented and bruised for a while, but failure is not an option.

Herb once told me to be personally safe, be sure of my decisions and to be smart in business. With that motto in mind I am carrying on.

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