Never Neglect the Quiet Spouse

There is something predictable about meeting with a married couple to discuss finances.  One of them usually takes the lead.  But it’s misleading to assume that the one who dominates the conversation is the one who will make the decision.

A financial advisor recounts this story about meeting with a couple who came to him for a financial plan.

I received an outreach call from a prospective client a few years ago. He was in his late 50s and a very active, do-it-yourself investor. He wanted to retire in a few years, but the 2008 financial crisis had left him concerned about his ability to afford retirement. He was looking for a financial plan.
When he came in for the first meeting, he brought his wife along, but he did all the talking. Other than providing the household budget, the wife sat quietly to the side. This isn’t all that uncommon — one spouse typically takes the lead. But if I was going to create a financial plan for both of them, I’d need her input. So I tried to engage the wife directly to find out her thoughts and concerns. I’d ask them both a question about investing, such as how they felt about investing in individual stocks. After the husband outlined his strategy, I turned to the wife and asked her, “Well, what do you feel about that?”

Her response was that she’d never really understood the process but wanted to learn. I tried to get her to contribute more during the remainder of our hour-and-a-half opening meeting, but she didn’t offer much.

A similar pattern continued in the follow-up meeting a few days later. We’d drafted a financial plan and an investment plan for the husband’s IRA, which held around $1.5 million; the couple’s joint account, worth $300,000, wasn’t added to the mix until they’d decided to hire us. They were both on board with the plan, but the wife still didn’t engage, despite my efforts.

When they left the office, I assumed she really just wasn’t interested, but I figured I’d tried my best. Then, three weeks later, the wife called me out of the blue. It turns out she had inherited an investment portfolio five years ago worth $4 million. The original broker who had worked with her father was currently managing the investments for her, but she couldn’t stand talking to him, because he was so condescending.

I asked her why she hadn’t brought this up during the opening meeting, and she implied, but clearly, that she was sitting back and waiting to see how I operated. Besides, she said, this inheritance was for her children. She and her husband were retiring on her husband’s IRA, and that’s what the initial meeting had been about.

To say I was surprised would be an understatement. I’ve worked with couples where the passive wife turned out to hold a graduate degree in economics. Wives often let their husbands do the talking but then step in to say what they want to do. But I’d never run into this kind of situation, where the passive spouse was in direct control of most of the assets and kept virtually silent through the opening meetings.

Even if the quiet spouse really doesn’t get involved in family finances, at some point, she could find herself “suddenly single” because of the death of her spouse.  It’s the main reason I wrote Before I Go.  For more information about our firm, or the book, go HERE and get in touch with us.

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