Ronni Ginott was at a New Year’s Day party in 2003 when her husband, David, had a heart attack and died on the spot, at 58.
In an instant, Ronni Ginott, then 55, became not only a single mother of two daughters, but also the owner of E.M. Winston Co., her husband’s musical-instrument rental company. She knew nothing about the business, and her husband had no succession plan.
Had she discussed his will with him when he was drafting it a decade earlier, she might have discovered this. But they were both in their 40s, too young to worry about death, or so she thought. And so Ginott never got around to learning about her husband’s will, assets or their estate.
“I should have known what the will said, but I didn’t think it applied to me,” said Ginott, now 70, of Greenwich, Connecticut. “It was my fault. I was ignorant.”
Not long ago, Ginott shared her story with her friend Diane Terman Felenstein. Terman Felenstein co-founded the 008-Investment Club, an investing group for women, in 1996. It spawned similar organizations around the country and a book, “The Money Club.” The group disbanded after a few years. But as time passed, Terman Felenstein, who runs Diane Terman Public Relations in New York, heard horror stories of women just like Ginott — smart, accomplished women — who still cast a blind eye to financial matters, especially those relating to later life.
“Twenty years ago, our children were just getting married, we did not have grandchildren or they were just being born, we did not have mates who were ill,” Terman Felenstein said. “You didn’t think you’d die. But I’ve lost friends, they’ve lost husbands, there have been unexpected illnesses and medical bills. We’ve had divorces and remarriages and stepchildren. We saw people lose their money in 2008. These are issues that were never in anybody’s brain.”
After hearing Ginott’s story, Terman Felenstein and Gloria Gottlieb, president of Worldwide Insurance, started “Women and Wills,” a free lecture series dedicated to educating women over 50 — though women of any age are welcome — on issues such as estate planning, succession planning, insurance, long-term health care, charitable giving and of course, wills. (The women had been partners before, having started a group in 2004 to help grandparents in need.)
“Tomorrow is today,” Gottlieb said. Even if you do have a will in place, she added, “Things always have to be reviewed. Some old policies are no longer adequate.”
So far, they have held three seminars in New York City, with over 200 women in total attendance, many of whom are in their 60s and 70s and were original members of the 008-Investment Club. Each seminar tackles a different issue, led by experts, including wealth advisers and divorce lawyers.
Laurie Ruckel, deputy chairwoman of the Trust and Estates Department at Loeb & Loeb, a law firm, discussed estate planning. Louise Phillips Forbes, a senior associate real estate broker at Halstead Property, stressed the importance of understanding the value of your real estate.
“Real estate holdings can be an important part of your estate planning and are often one of the largest assets within the estate,” Forbes said. “Careful consideration should be given to how you title real property owned with your spouse or partner as the title can control the disposition of the property.”
Women tend to live longer than men and must plan accordingly. In the United States, the average life expectancy is 81.2 years for women and 76.5 for men. This means women will most likely have to deal with money matters at some point, whether they like it or not.
“Women often survive their spouses, and they have not been well versed in the financial fluency of their family,” Ruckel said. “Or they have a sick spouse or a spouse who suffers from mental infirmities, and they don’t know what to do. Often, I see cases of a second marriage and there’s a natural tension between the women and the stepchildren. Even if everything went along swimmingly during the marriage, there can be all this tension when the glue is gone.”
That is what happened to Diane Steiner, a divorce lawyer in New York. After her second husband, to whom she was married for 25 years, was diagnosed with dementia, his children questioned the will and sued to be his guardian and for power of attorney. She thought she had a good relationship with them. But, she said, “I could not prevent my stepchildren from suing. They thought if they got control they could siphon off funds for their own benefit.”
Her husband died two weeks before the case was scheduled to go to trial, and the will and power of attorney over his finances remained as her husband wished. Still, “It cost me an enormous amount of money in legal fees,” she said.
“Women should insist on knowing what assets and liabilities they have,” said Steiner, who declined to give her age. “Probably half of the women I see say, ‘I was such a fool.’ You have to have money in your own name, as well as joint bank accounts. You have to have retirement assets. You have to pay attention to the financial statements that come into the house. Make copies of statements that look important. Never sign a tax return unless you understand it. Ask questions. Take it to a lawyer.”
Of course, understanding a legal document is one thing; executing it is another matter altogether.
Such was the case with Eileen Stein, whose husband of 45 years, Michael, died three years ago. Despite knowing everything in his will, she felt jolted when she realized she was actually in charge. She froze.
“So many women depend on their husband to do everything and they do not pay attention,” said Stein, who is in her early 70s. “When the day comes, they panic. It’s very important to have a good legal team to help and guide you.”
Ginott echoed that. After her husband died, she felt she was “a minute way from imploding.”
“I was terrified and grieving at the same time,” she said. But she hired lawyers, and they helped her wade through the morass. She is still running the instrument rental company today. But she learned a lesson: “Wills should be updated and reviewed together,” she said.
Terman Felenstein and Gottlieb plan to take that message around the country, setting up similar lectures. They are also planning another book. “If you don’t do proper planning you’re going to be left holding a paper bag,” Terman Felenstein said. “We say, ‘If you’re left holding the bag, there ought to be money in it.’”