Women have made enormous strides in the workplace in the past few decades, and that progress is showing up in executive suites — from fledgling startups to brand-name corporations. Though women are still underrepresented in prominent positions compared to men, their growing visibility is giving them more options than ever. But it also means they have to pay close attention to a thicket of financial matters that accompany professional success.
“We see more and more high-earning and high-achieving women among our clients,” says Anne Gifford Ewing, a senior estate planning specialist at Capital Group Private Client Services. “That’s very good news, but it also means that a new generation of women is encountering wealth planning issues for the first time.”
In many cases, the rules of wealth planning apply to men and women alike. So does the need to avoid financial pitfalls, such as inadequate tax planning, which can snare the unwary regardless of gender. But some issues tend to be more gender-specific, and women need to be aware of them.
“Women are more likely to pause a career to care for children or other loved ones, and they often outlive men,” says Jennifer George, a Private Wealth Advisor at Capital Group Private Client Services. Beyond that, a range of issues that used to primarily affect men, such as spousal and child support, are starting to impact women more often, too.
Handling those two threads — the fundamentals of portfolio construction and the nuanced needs of a particular individual — is critical for long-term financial success, George says.
In her practice, George has seen a variety of investors, from entrepreneurs who built their wealth over time like patient marathon runners to workhorse startup employees who suddenly became rich after a public offering. The most important factor for nurturing wealth in the long term, she says, isn’t related to how someone came into money; it’s finding and retaining a financial advisor who understands their needs, goals and circumstances.
“Several years ago, I worked with a successful female executive whose company was filing to go public,” George recalls. “Her net worth was going to go from about $4 million to more than $60 million, essentially overnight.”
Helping this client wasn’t simple. She needed a portfolio that could support her lifestyle but was diversified to help mitigate market risks. Her wealth was tied up in complex securities with varied tax profiles. She wanted to ensure her children would benefit, and she hoped to support some charitable causes.
“We first took time to understand her goals and to model a portfolio designed to meet her needs,” George says. “We were able to help her think through some charitable goals, and we put together a trust to help her children without suffering a big tax hit.”
Critically, “we did all this in advance of the IPO,” she adds. “Many of these planning opportunities are not available after the fact. Not everyone’s situation is exactly like this woman’s — every set of circumstances is unique — but it’s important to think about how to exercise stock options or when to sell a business long before you actually do so.”
Looking more broadly, it’s just as important to understand the potential impact of decisions that aren’t strictly financial in nature, Gifford Ewing adds.
“We often see accomplished women decide to step away from a high-earning career for a while,” she says. “Perhaps they’re planning to care for children or parents or to pursue a passion project. But that’s a financial decision, too, and it’s crucial to understand how it can affect your assets and obligations.”
One of the most powerful tools for investors is an understanding of the full sweep of their assets. It’s wise to compile a complete list of assets, income and significant debts in a net worth statement. That can help women and their advisors identify issues before any intractable problems emerge. Reviewing such documents annually should become part of ongoing financial maintenance, George says.
“You might be surprised by what it finds,” she adds. “We’ve worked with a number of clients who were surprised that their ex-spouse was the beneficiary of a retirement plan or life insurance policy.”
Sometimes, important details like that slip through the cracks because they force us to confront unpleasant topics such as death and loss. As uncomfortable as that can be, preparation can pay dividends down the line, Gifford Ewing says.
“It can be scary to think that someday you won’t be around or that you might not be in control of your personal or financial life,” she says. “That’s why having an estate plan you understand is so critical.”
This is especially relevant for women because, on average, they tend to outlive men. Gifford Ewing notes: “I can’t tell you how many times we have seen a recently widowed woman be surprised, and frankly unhappy, about the terms of the will or trust that’s kicking in after her spouse’s death. Usually, it’s a document she read and signed years ago but didn’t fully understand or remember.”
Similarly, it’s a good idea to understand well in advance how laws can impact your rights and duties. Just as no one buys a house intending to suffer a foreclosure, no one gets married with visions of divorce. Still, taking the time to digest and understand how laws would likely apply to you in a worst-case scenario can pay off if something does go wrong. Having a team to aid in your understanding can help, as the rules around relationships and assets are complicated and sometimes unintuitive.
“There is a lot of variability,” Gifford Ewing says. “Whether you’re contemplating marriage, legally married, unmarried but partnered and sharing a household, or in the midst of a divorce or breakup, your rights to control or keep assets, and your potential obligations, can vary wildly, depending on your situation and jurisdiction.”