Q. My father never shared the family finances with my mom, and now that he’s died, she doesn’t know what to do. How can I help her? She is 76.
— Only child

A. We’re sorry about the loss of your dad.

He probably considered himself your mom’s “protector.”

Unfortunately, many ‘protectors’ actually achieve the opposite for their spouses at their death, said Debra Morrison, a certified financial planner with Empowered Retirement in Lincoln Park.

Morrison said instead of just carrying on singularly with managing financial decisions that they may have done jointly prior to the death, the remaining partner doesn’t even know the vocabulary, let alone how to construct a financial sentence.

“Grief, as your mother now knows, is a full time job,” Morrison said. “Sadly, to combine the fear of not knowing even what she doesn’t know about money matters compounds her grief.”

Morrison, in addition to being a CFP, is also a Certified Grief Coach and author of the book “My Husband Died, Now What? A Widow’s Guide to Grief Recovery & Smart Financial Decisions.”

You can start the conversation by assuring her that it’s not her fault that she is ignorant of money.

“Women her age were socialized to be their husband’s arm candy or at least, not to be involved with the finances; a task men assumed, whether or not they were (more) qualified,” Morrison said.

You can assure her that she can learn what’s important and ultimately be able to make choices that empower her.

Morrison said you should encourage her not to make any large money decisions — buying or selling investments, no matter how convincing the annuity salesperson is, buying or selling a home/residence, and/or moving her principal residence — within the first year.

Consider looking for a fee-only certified financial planner who can help educate her as well as advise her what steps are necessary to address in the next six months, in the next year and beyond, Morrison said.

“That type of prioritization can ease the terrific burden of overwhelm,” she said. “The fee-only CFP will not sell products nor earn commissions. Rather, they generally give a complimentary initial appointment — which hopefully you can attend physically, through Skype, or on a telephone conference call — after which they will say whether they can add value, and if so, on what fee basis that could happen.”

Your mom could go home, confer with you and make a decision in her own time, Morrison said.

She recommends your mom avoid having any appointment with a commissionable insurance agent — even the one who may call to deliver a death benefit check.

“They are paid commissions for products they sell, and are not adequately trained as much as a fee-only CFP would be, in Social Security, income taxation — widows can claim favorable status for two years, etc.,– and risk tolerance and longevity probability analysis,” Morrison said. “Commissionable agents have been known to pressure widows, asking them leading questions like, “Don’t you want to be safe?” Believe me, for a minimum of 4 to 12 percent commission, you’d have a well-honed sales pitch too, and, trust me, they do.”

Morrison said purchasing an unsuitable annuity, which she said is almost always what widows get talked into — can be devastating both financially and emotionally, and she should avoid it at all costs.

“A fee-only CFP can guide your mom through retrieving any death benefit checks as well as do searches to potentially locate ‘lost assets’ and formulate a plan with your mom to proceed to best integrate finances with her emotional, spiritual, and economic life choices going forward,” Morrison said.

Email your questions to ask@njmoneyhelp.com.

Karin Price Mueller writes the Bamboozled column for The Star-Ledger and she’s the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Click here to sign up for the NJMoneyHelp.com weekly e-newsletter. Like NJMoneyHelp.com on Facebook and follow it on Twitter

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