She Saved My Life

Older, wiser, priorities reshuffled – your clients need an advisor for their life

Steve Gresham

Financial Advisor
March 2121


 Jackie P. didn’t mince words when she told me how she felt about Annemarie, “She saved my life”.


Jackie’s husband, Tom had died about a year before our conversation, held in her home in suburban Virginia. When initially diagnosed with multiple myeloma, Tom was expected to live 3-4 years. Jackie quit her job as an educator and her attentive care helped them enjoy seven additional years together.


They made the most of that time. Tom was an engineer and had always used his analytical skills to manage the couple’s modest finances, complete their annual taxes and build a large wooden deck for their house. Jackie managed the children and the family health care, but had never looked at their account statements, paid the taxes, written a check or held a hammer. By the end of the seven years, she was proficient at all of those tasks – even building a crib for her grandson under the watchful eye of her husband.  


Tom engaged a financial advisor assigned to his brokerage account, Annemarie, who had never spoken much to Tom. He was clearly a confident, self-directed investor. But Tom wanted Jackie to have assistance and they discussed together the forward management of the family account. “No annuities and no managed accounts”, Tom declared, “Too expensive!”. Despite his support and educational efforts with Jackie, she was never at ease selecting investments. When Tom passed, Jackie divided their investments among a managed account and a life annuity. “I didn’t want to worry about markets and I didn’t want my children to worry about me. Annemarie helped me to understand his concerns, my options and how to be comfortable with a simple plan. His illness, his care and his death were traumatic for me. I needed to breathe – Annemarie saved my life”.



Every year I see a survey or two or three about the added value of an advisor. The same answer always floats to the top – the highest value created by an advisor is “behavior modification”. A lot of advisors interpret that finding as, “I kept my clients invested when they wanted to sell”. For sure that is value, especially in the historic bull market of the last twelve years. But a new explanation is growing that tracks with the historic age wave of retiring Baby Boomers -- 69 million strong and now sporting a median age of 65. “Behavior modification” today increasingly means “adjusting to retirement”. It also means coping with significant life changes including divorce and death that accompany longevity. The Boomers had a peak population of 78 million – many of them have already left us. And you know the stats on divorce.


Perception of true added value is the safe harbor for advisors seeking refuge from an onslaught of competition. When a spouse has left or died, when a long career is ending, when an uncertain future is looming, clients can’t look their robo advisor in the eye or hold its hand. The value of reassurance, empathy rises past the level of financial added value or investment prowess. We know all this, we think -- our clients know we are here for them. They will let us know when they are uncomfortable. We will help. Comforting for us, but…..


Money in motion tells a different story of client “comfort”. Through September, asset transfers were up 350% over the “normal” rate and more than 2x the level following the 2008 financial crisis. An IWI survey of clients with advisors conducted BEFORE the pandemic reported clients wanted their advisors to proactively talk to them more about a number of different topics – 2/3 of them were different aspects of longevity planning. #1? Retirement income. A survey out a few weeks ago pegged the #1 concern for retirees was how to afford health care. I’m kind of a numbers guy but I think anyone who looks can see the shift taking place. More than half the advice world’s client population is well past the U.S. average retirement age of 62. This could be a surprise to advisors riding the bull market since the March 2009 low. The S&P compounded at 18% per year and bonds flew at an average 11% -- need we say more? THAT’s added value.


But while the markets have been running, the clients have been slowing down. According to an IWI report, the leading reason a top advisory practice loses a top client is now the death of the client. But in 2009, the median age of the wave was only 53. There’s a big difference between 53 and the current median of 65 – and certainly compared to the oldest end of the cohort at 75. We have become an industry of  de facto retirement advisors and we need to pivot to the real needs of our clientele. At 53, most investors are looking to a still far-off “retirement” date and enjoying their peak earning years -- which might or might not include a serious financial plan. Mostly not, as we know. So are we really surprised when that unprepared 53 year old accumulator has a retirement anxiety attack at 65? During a global pandemic? With a 20% chance of having a cognitive impairment? Amid increasing rates of both divorce and suicide? Sure, the investment returns are stellar, BUT…..


The New Advisor for Life is really The New Advisor for the Rest of Your Life. This role is less portfolio manager and more life manager. In many situations, the “client” becomes a family of as many as 3-4 generations and “retirement” becomes a family affair. Financial needs and caregiving needs converge in mutual dependence. All of the plans are stress tested in real time and weak spots can’t be easily fixed by going back to work. Most of the advisor’s work is intuitive, as it was for Annemarie. Will we answer the call?




Steve Gresham is a builder of new ideas as managing principal of The Execution Project, LLC, a consulting firm working to reshape wealth management and retirement for the age wave. He is also a senior education advisor to The Alliance for Lifetime Income. Steve served as head of the private client group at Fidelity Investments and is the author of The New Advisor for Life (Wiley). See more at