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The Advicer

‘He’s pretty out of his element.’ My father-in-law lost his wife, who had been in charge of their finances. What’s my move?

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My father-in-law asked for help with his finances. Should I work with a financial pro?

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I recently came across a question on Reddit that addressed something we hear about from readers from time-to-time: what happens when someone loses a spouse who was the ‘money person’ in that relationship. In this case, the person wanted to get a pro to help, but wasn’t sure what kind of pro or how to find a good one. Here’s the question, and we got a series of financial experts to answer it.

“My FIL recently lost his wife (my wife’s mother). They were both public employees here in Oregon, she was retired and he was not. His wife was always in charge of the finances and he’s pretty out of his element figuring this all out and has reached out to me for help. I’m pretty knowledgeable about private retirement options, but all the public pensions and the different accounts are super confusing to me. I don’t really know where to start. I’m worried about choosing the wrong specialist since this is a more unique situation. I’m afraid I’ll make the wrong choice in that they don’t know what to do or that they’re way too expensive. Would it be better to seek out a financial planner, lawyer or accountant to start out in this situation?”

Answer: Hiring a pro could be a smart idea in this situation, as it sounds like your father-in-law could use a little financial help, and you’re not well-versed enough on his specific needs to do it yourself. Not to mention that sometimes things can get messy when you combine family and money. That said, picking the right person is key. (Looking for a new financial adviser too? This tool can match you to an adviser who may meet your needs.)

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If your father-in-law needs needs someone to help him make decisions regarding the pensions and set up a system so he can manage the finances on his own now, then “a financial planner can help with this,” says certified financial planner Cristina Guglielmetti at Future Perfect Planning. A financial planner can also present investment strategies, mitigate risk management, assist with tax planning strategies and offer retirement planning. However, “if there’s still estate settlement questions to be addressed regarding inheritances and property, it’s better to speak with a lawyer,” says Guglielmetti.

As for what kind of financial planner to pick, multiple experts told us there are a couple big things to consider. First, find a planner who is familiar with Oregon pensions, 403(b)s and 457s. “It’s important to find someone trained as a specialist in those benefits,” says certified financial planner Josh St. Laurent at Wealth In Yourself. Adds certified financial planner Terrance Hutchins at Logos Financial Group: “You should seek out a planner who specializes working with retirees or public employees. and they should have the expertise to understand how a pension plan works.”

Both Hutchins and St. Laurent say you also need someone who has worked with widows or widowers before. Indeed, look for a person who understands “ the nuance of working with a widower who may not be financially savvy,” says Hutchins.

Of course, you also want a financial planner who’s trustworthy and well-credentialed. “A good place to begin your search for a fee-only financial planner based in Oregon is through the CFP Board’s Let’s Make a Plan site and the NAPFA (National Association of Personal Financial Advisers) site,” says certified financial planner Brad Nelson, president of Point Loma Advisors. You should ask friends and family for recommendations as well, and you can use this free tool to get matched you to an adviser who may meet your needs.

You may want to consider a certified financial planner because they’re required to undergo extensive training, pass exams, complete thousands of hours of professional experience and adhere to ethical standards. Work with a fee-only adviser, as it minimizes the potential for conflicts of interest since they’re only paid by the client and aren’t receiving commission based on their recommendations.

You don’t want to feel responsible for recommending someone that isn’t appropriate for helping your father-in-law or someone who isn’t working in his best interest, so you will need to first interview multiple candidates so you have choices. You seem to be taking the lead role in helping your father-in-law. so he might feel comfortable having you or your wife in the meetings with these professionals — but ask him what he prefers. (Here’s how to vet any adviser you might want to hire.) Note that “many fee-only advisers are willing to offer a complimentary review,” says  certified financial planner Marianela Collado at Tobias Financial Advisors. 

Fees for financial planners will vary. Under the assets under management (AUM) model, planners charge a percentage of the assets they manage, which is typically in the neighborhood of 1%. For a one-time plan, expect to pay anywhere between $2,500 and $7,500, depending on where you’re located and how complex your finances are; hourly planners typically charge between $150 and $450 per hour.

“Many planners offer one-time plans or fixed fees to help you navigate a plan that is right for your father-in-law. If you need a plan and ongoing investment management, many CFPs offer that, too,” says certified financial planner Lea Ann Knight at Better Money Decisions.

When evaluating the cost of an adviser, “define what in your mind is expensive and what value you hope to receive from working with an adviser. The value of a professional helping your family navigate this new normal may be worth more to your father-in-law than you are initially thinking,” says Hutchins.

You may need a lawyer or accountant too, depending on the situation, and a good financial planner can likely connect you to a lawyer or accountant to help your father-in-law build out a strong financial plan that would include evaluating your current tax, legal and estate strategies. To find a lawyer or an accountant, survey friends, family and coworkers for reputable professionals. Many state bar websites also feature an online directory where consumers can search for legal professionals by location and expertise. Similarly, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) offers an online tool to find accredited CPAs.

Some other things to consider: You may want to discuss having you or your wife listed as the financial power of attorney for your father-in-law. “The person would be available to assist in making future decisions on his behalf and make sure his estate plan is updated, including his will and beneficiary designations. Lastly, you should broach the topic of healthcare, specifically long term care and make sure you have a plan for how to handle that kind of situation in the future,” says Hutchins.

Have an issue with your financial adviser or looking for a new one? Email questions and concerns to