The morning mists have just begun to lift from the tiny Chinese village when Lesley Brey hops on her mountain bike and begins pedaling toward the edge of town, dodging chickens amid the aroma of steamed food emanating from nearby shops. Her brightly colored athletic clothing–or perhaps it’s her fair skin, so rare in this remote region–elicits some stares, and a few villagers wave, recognizing her from the morning’s Tai Chi exercises in the village square. Her three-week mountain-biking trek across parts of southern China is a guided tour, but only sort of: Every morning, the organizers hand out directions explaining how to reach that night’s lodgings, and then everyone is set loose to find their way. “It was the most incredible thing,” says Brey cheerfully, recalling the side trips she and her husband made from the designated route, only sometimes on purpose. “You’d come to a place where the directions said go straight, but the road was totally torn up, so you’d have to make your own detour and figure your way out.” Of course, if you figured incorrectly, it could be a very long time before you were ever heard from again–but hey, that’s part of the fun, right?
Okay, so getting lost in the hinterlands of China with only a bike and a knapsack might not be everyone’s idea of R&R. But Brey, 43, seems to enjoy blazing her own trail: She recently declined an offer to become president of a large planning firm, preferring to continue running her own one-woman planning shop in Honolulu, and on another recent vacation, she took her family to, of all places, Tibet.
Yet many of her clients are on the opposite end of the risk spectrum, at least when it comes to their finances. A significant number of her clients are widows, many of whom rarely touched the checkbook while their husbands were alive, let alone the investment statements. When it comes to money, these clients want a guide to hold their hands every step of the way, helping them find their way around obstacles, warning them about potholes, and making sure they’re staying on the road toward financial independence. “Many women have not handled money throughout their lives, so when their husbands die, they find themselves on this scary edge of a cliff,” peering down at a subject area that’s entirely foreign to them, says Brey. “But in many cases, it’s not that they were disinterested, or that they can’t do it; the opportunity just never came up. When you give them a little bit of knowledge, they’re just voracious.”
Brey’s mission is to educate her clients about their finances, tease out their goals–which can be especially tough for the recently widowed, since it means imagining a changed future at a time when it’s hard even to think about the present–and help them build a plan to achieve those goals. “I won’t work with the ones who say, ‘Here, just take care of this.’ I want to get them to a point where they understand enough to be able to do this on their own if they had to,” she says. “Then, once they understand it, most of them say, ‘Great. I get it; that’s wonderful. But I’m glad you’re here, because I’m going to go play bridge,’ or go hiking, or whatever it is they like to do.”
A Guiding Hand
Seventy-six-year-old jazz and blues singer Vera Forbes could be a poster child for the kind of client Brey especially likes to work with. Forbes is not the timid, little-old-lady type who sits around knitting booties and baking cakes; she’s much more likely to be dining out, planning a cruise, or organizing her friends into singing groups and auditioning for performances. But even the feisty and independent Forbes was thrown for a loop four years ago, when her husband passed away after bouts with Parkinson’s disease and recurring cancer.
The emotional turmoil was bad enough. Throw in a confusing swirl of financial matters, which Forbes had never dealt with during the 25 years of her marriage, and things began to look pretty bleak. As her husband’s condition worsened, he had become less able to keep the couple’s financial records in order. It was only by chance that she ran across a document detailing what turned out to be the couple’s largest investment holding. And every time she’d call a financial institution to procure records or resolve a question, she’d get a different representative on the phone and have to start over at square one. “It was confusing for me, and it was so complicated because things were just all over the place,” Forbes recalls. “I really needed an advisor.”
Forbes hired an advisor for a short-term engagement, and when she asked him to recommend someone to handle her finances long term, he suggested Brey. “So I called her and we had an interview, and I liked her on sight,” says Forbes. Brey helped her establish long-term goals, diversify her portfolio (“my pie,” as Forbes calls it), and sell off a portion of her largest holding. “I was blessed to find Lesley, because she really took care of advising me,” says Forbes. “She really helped me deal with the insecurity I felt after my husband’s death, and she’s not one of these people who just says, ‘Here’s what you have to do.’ Instead, she suggests things and explains why we should do this instead of that. She’s a great teacher. I don’t like to deal with all this stuff”–she laughs–”but she makes it pleasant, she really does.”
The Survivor’s List
One of the cornerstones of Brey’s work with widows is what she calls the “Survivor’s File,” a four-page document that helps a widow determine what actions she needs to take in the months following her spouse’s death (e.g., file estate tax returns, contact company benefits administrators, revise beneficiaries, etc.), and provides a template to help her organize the information she’ll need to take those actions (e.g., the deceased person’s Social Security number, life insurance policy numbers and carriers, and so forth (see sidebar on page 84). Ideally, it should be filled out with up-to-date information while both spouses are still living, but Brey says it’s also a useful tool to help the recently widowed get their affairs organized.
Sadly, Brey’s “Survivor’s File” had reason to become a well-traveled document last year, when September 11 sent planners scurrying for resources to help them serve clients who had lost loved ones in the attacks. Planner Rosanne Grande of Bohemia, New York, read about the list in an online version of a summer 2001 Investment Advisor series on women and money, and was among several advisors to contact Brey to request a copy. Brey sent it almost immediately, says Grande. “Lesley’s list was particularly useful for 9/11 because these were people who needed to find things really fast,” she says, noting that the list makes a great complement to two other print resources she uses frequently, After He’s Gone by Barbara Tom Jowell and Donnette Schwisow (Birch Lane Printing, 1997), and Suddenly Single by Kerry Hannon (John Wiley & Sons, 1998). “You really hated to bother them with paperwork at a time like that, but it was important to get everything settled,” Grande says.
Grande points out she completed the form herself for her own family to keep on file, and passed the form along to her sister-in-law, who was recently widowed.
First, Do Nothing
One of the main points the “Survivor’s File” makes clear is that there are very few actions the survivor absolutely, positively has to take immediately following her spouse’s death. Under the heading “Absolute Must-Do’s Within 9 Months,” there are only two items listed, and at the bottom of the first page, Brey reinforces the point in black and white: “Go Slow–Be cautious about rushing big decisions. (They will all feel big.)”