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Harris Private Bank's wealth series targets savvy women


Harris Private Bank's "Wealth & Fashion I.Q. for Women" program isn't your typical Finance 101. It's much more, designed for savvy women who realize that learning about money is an ongoing process.

Nearly 100 women attended the April 5 program at Saks Fifth Avenue at The Gardens Mall. After a light lunch, two presentations and a spring fashion show, all walked away with gifts tucked inside a trendy reptile-looking Saks tote and much smarter about their financial situation.

Divided into three segments -- including an enthusiastic opening by Margaret May Damen, founder of the Institute for Women and Wealth, about the "power of the purse" and a colorful spring fashion show moderated by Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue -- the program really belonged to Kimberly A. Bridges, manager of financial planning for Harris Private Bank.

Bridges entered the world of addressing women and money issues in her 40s after spending time as a Marine, raising a family and teaching personal finance and estate planning at Texas Tech University. She's been with Harris since 2009.

"I came to this after raising a family and am thrilled that they [Harris Private Bank] have a women and wealth initiative," Bridges said, "and excited that they see me as good source of research and wanted to tap my abilities."

If there is a bank around with a women's edge, it quite possibly is Harris Private Bank. Owned by the Bank of Montreal, the corporation says a diverse background can provide a competitive edge. It is a fan of women in the workforce: 62 percent of Harris employees are women, more than 30 percent are executives and their president is Ellen Costello.

Bridges addressed issues ranging from the importance of women creating a financial plan to trust and estate concerns.

"I left the program realizing that I needed to take another look at the trusts my husband and I had created to ensure they had the appropriate updates," said attendee Salesia V. Smith-Gordon, a West Palm Beach attorney.

As things change in people's lives, their trusts often need updating too, she said.

The following Q&A is from a telephone conversation I had with Bridges a few days after the program. She is based in Scottsdale, Ariz., and her answers reflect her client base: married women, retired with assets per client averaging $1.5 million.

Q: You didn't give a Finance 101 presentation. This was for women who were not dummies. Tell me why.

A: Primarily, I knew the audience was one of wealth holders, and they tend to already have a little bit more knowledge than your average women. The challenge is, while some women in the room were savvy and sophisticated, all may or may not be taking a very active role in their financial management.

Q: Why do you think some wealthy women choose to ignore how important it is that they learn all they can about their finances?

A: I love that question because it is looking at things from a psychological perspective rather than approaching things from a number crunching perspective.

First, I think that the reasons are as varied as the women themselves. So not everyone has been ignoring their finances for the same reasons. But some ideas that might contribute would be self-efficacy. For instance the idea that 'I'm not sure if I'm smart enough to understand this stuff.'

Some women, particularly if they are older women, may have received messages throughout their childhood that men are good at math and women aren't. Or, they may have grown up in households were the father managed all the finances and the wife didn't. So social and cultural conditioning and the model that the parents followed may be contributing reasons.

I looked at the Transtheoritical model of Stages of Change model. It's a five-stage model that helps to explain behavior. The first stage is called precontemplation. In it, women are not even aware that perhaps there is a problem or financial issue to face. Those women won't be involved in their financial situation and are just trusting that their husbands are going to take care of things.

Then what often happens with women in this stage is that there is a trigger that gets them involved. It might be a divorce, either their own or that of a close friend or relative. Or the death of somebody. And all of sudden, they see what the possible consequences could be if they don't become involved. They then realize that maybe there could be a problem and that's when they begin learning about financial issues.

Q: What have you found are the primary long-term planning concerns for women?

A: In my observation, the No. 1 concern is financial security for themselves. They want to know that they are going to have enough money to last the rest of their lives.

Q: How long do you estimate a lifetime is going to be for them?

A: I tend to think we ought to be planning for longer life expectancies. So we default to 95.

There is plenty of research that shows life expectancy is extending and maybe we should be planning out further. The problem is, you're making a trade-off. It's easy to say, 'Oh, let's say plan out to 100 or 105, just to be sure.' But by doing that they could be giving up their current lifestyle if they are trying to make the money last.

So I talk to them about it and let them be the one to make the final judgment.

That decision is also relevant to their current age, too. I was running a plan recently for a client who was already 82 -- so that's another point to consider.

Q: So the first thing is having enough money to live their life; what's No. 2?

A: Long-term care. Women worry about what's going to happen if they or their husband get sick and if there will be enough money left to live off. It's as if they are already picturing themselves as a widow who doesn't want to be a burden on their kids.

Q: And No. 3?

A: The kids -- they want to make sure that they can help their kids and/or leave something to them.

Q: A will can be challenged in the courts. But what about a trust? Can it be challenged?

A: The real issue with a will is that it becomes a public document. So people who think they should be inheriting under the will can look at the public document, and if they are left out of it can file a claim to try to recover what they think should be theirs.

The real advantage of a trust is that it's not a public document. And the person who might think he should be entitled to some inheritance doesn't necessarily have any right to view the trust. He can't even see the provisions of the trust and that's a huge advantage.

That doesn't mean trusts aren't subject to litigation. But the type of litigation that usually happens is based on capacity issues: Did this person have the mental capacity to execute that document when it was created?

That's another reason it's so important for women to have their estate plans in place.

Q: I thought your line, 'A man is not a financial plan' had a lot of truth to it. What's the one thing you'd like women to think about with respect to their wealth?

A: I think it comes down to awareness. A lot of women really don't want to become the chief financial officer in their family, but at some point they may be forced to because they may lose their spouses one way or another whether it is incapacity, death or divorce. Then they may be put in a position where they have to be.

So I think it's very important to become aware of financial issues and to start educating yourself because what you don't know can hurt you.

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