Putting together your financial team

Steve Merrell |

Question: My husband recently passed away and I suddenly find myself dealing with all the financial matters he used to handle. These are things he kept to himself and suddenly I’m expected to know what to do. I am feeling very overwhelmed. Where do I start?

Answer: Unfortunately, your situation is fairly common. In many households, one partner takes the lead on financial matters. If that partner dies unexpectedly, the surviving partner is often left in a difficult situation. The learning curve can be steep, especially if the surviving partner has little experience in financial matters, and that’s a lot to deal with while grieving the loss of a loved one. Don’t worry if it takes you a little while to sort everything out. Managing a family’s financial affairs can be complex. However, with the support of the right team, you will be able to come up to speed without much difficulty.


Your professional team should include a financial advisor, an estate-planning attorney, and a tax professional. You will need to rely on this team, so find candidates with excellent reputations and then interview them to make sure they are people you can actually work with. You are undertaking a big job and you deserve the best. The following ideas should help.


Your financial advisor should be someone with certified expertise, experience, and who will put your interests first. A number of certifications exist, but the most relevant for wealth management is the Certified Financial Planner® or CFP® designation. A CFP® professional has a broad knowledge of personal finance and has demonstrated her mastery of relevant principles by passing a rigorous exam and working at least three years in the financial planning industry. Continuing education helps the CFP® professional stay current.


Some financial advisors are fiduciaries in the same way your attorney or CPA is a fiduciary. A fiduciary is someone who is legally obligated to put your interests first. You can tell if an advisor is a fiduciary by asking a simple question: Does the advisor or his firm have any incentive to sell me anything? Do they earn commissions, participate in revenue sharing on any financial products, or receive fees for referring clients to other professionals? If they do not, chances are the advisor is a fiduciary. If they do, be aware of the conflict of interest. If you choose to work with an advisor who is a fiduciary, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors is an organization of fee-only financial advisors. Their website (www.NAPFA.org) is a great resource to find advisors who are true fiduciaries.


When considering an attorney, look for someone with expertise in estate planning. The California State Bar Association has a program to certify legal specialists in several areas, including estate planning, trusts and probate. To qualify as an estate planning specialist, an attorney needs to pass a certifying exam, complete at least 45 hours of estate planning continuing education and work in the estate planning field for a sufficient amount of time. The California State Bar keeps a list of attorneys by specialty in each county. We are fortunate in Monterey County to have several excellent estate planning attorneys. You can find a listing of specialists at the Bar Association’s legal specialization website: ls.calbar.ca.gov.


Some CPAs and all EAs (Enrolled Agents) are tax professionals. The best way to find the tax professional you need is to network with your other professionals. Ask them whom they recommend. As you work with your financial advisor and attorney, it will become apparent what expertise you need your tax professional to possess.



Steven C. Merrell  MBA, CFP®, AIF® is a Partner at Monterey Private Wealth, Inc., a Wealth Management Firm in Monterey.   He welcomes questions that you may have concerning investments, taxes, retirement, or estate planning.  Send your questions to: Steve Merrell, 2340 Garden Road Suite 202, Monterey, CA  93940 or email them to steve@montereypw.com.