Michelle P. Cooper

Michelle Cooper.jpg

by Danielle Cantor

A 25-year veteran of the estate planning, finance, and tax fields, Michelle P. Cooper is the director and co-founder of XML-W, a division of XML Financial Group focused on the financial needs of women. Cooper previously worked with high-net-worth clients at Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust, where she helped design and update estate plans and educated financial advisors on estate planning and trust services. Cooper began her career as an attorney specializing in tax and estate planning. Growing up in Bethesda, Md., she was extremely close with her family, with whom she celebrated every Jewish holiday and, now living in nearby Potomac, Md., maintains those traditions while raising her twin teenage son and daughter. Her book, I’ve Still Got Me - A Widow’s Journey to Love, Happiness & Financial Independence, tells her personal story of resilience after losing her first husband to suicide.

Who in your life has shaped you as a leader?

Both of my parents were very big inspirations for me, but my mother passed away when I was 26, so I didn't get to know her as a mature adult. My father was the one who molded me the most. He was a captain in the Army and was honored with a Bronze Star for leading troops to safety during the Korean War. After that, he put himself through school and became a periodontist. I learned from watching him that hard work is just part of life. He taught me that it’s important to give back – he would provide free dental care and advice to Jewish Russian immigrants. I also observed how he made each person he met, no matter who they were or where they came from, feel important and respected. He passed away on Mother's Day 2018, at the age of 90, and up until the last day we were extremely close.

What is your leadership philosophy?

I surround myself with competent individuals who are team players, and let them do their job. I don't like to micromanage people. When I had teams at Merrill Lynch, I would set up group meetings where we would all talk about things that we wanted to improve, and instead of dictating what I thought was right, I would listen and then come up with a solution that worked for everybody. I'm also very down-to-earth with people and have always had an open-door policy.

Did you encounter any barriers to success as a woman working in law and finance?

Trust and Estate and tax law are traditionally male-dominated fields. In addition, corporate finance has very few women who hold executive positions. That didn't stop me. I grew up with two older brothers, so I was comfortable interfacing with men. That being said, I believe there is a big void in the financial industry that women have the opportunity to fill. Women can make great financial advisors because of their natural ability to connect with people, be empathetic, patient, and listen. These are all valuable skills when helping people with holistic financial planning. Firms are looking to hire talented, motivated women, and I believe the future is bright for those entering this career path!

Are there any other challenges that you can tell me about and what you learned from those?

My biggest challenges have been the loss of my parents, and the loss of my first husband. I learned that nothing in life lasts forever. And because of this, I remind myself every day to be grateful for the blessings that I have in my life. I try to be mindful to enjoy every single moment of happiness, to reflect on it, and just live in the present, because you never know how long it’s going to last. Your life could look great one day, and then you wake up the next day, and it completely changes. I have also learned that the script you think your life will follow doesn't necessarily happen, and that challenges can make you more appreciative once you get through them. They can make you more confident and resourceful. That's what they've done for me.

Losing your husband, especially while your children were very young, must have been very disorienting. How did you begin to heal?

I never in my wildest dreams thought that my husband would commit suicide. Scott was the love of my life and a wonderful, caring father. There was no forewarning, no note, no explanation. I was completely blindsided, but I was determined not to let this event define my future or my children's future. I found resilience and strength by leaning in to the support of my family and friends. Another big part of it was accepting that my life might look different than what I had imagined, and that would still be okay. I'm happy to report that my life is not only okay, it is wonderful. I found love again, and I'm in a blended family, and we continue to learn and grow together.

How did that healing process evolve into writing your book?

For several years, I wanted to write a book, because I felt that my story would be something other women could connect with. But I was very self-conscious and uncomfortable sharing my story because of the way my husband passed away. There's a dark cloud around suicide. I had to gain strength and realize that my story would help people, and that realization outweighed my feelings of vulnerability. As I approached 50, I kept thinking, "If not now, when?" And with that mantra continuing to play in my mind, I decided that I wanted to make a shift in my career. So, after 21 fulfilling years, I retired as a director at Merrill Lynch to write my story and follow my passion, which is to help women build secure financial futures. Writing my book took a lot of perseverance. It took organization, it took patience, and endless hours of drafts, rewrites, and editing until I felt that I got it right. The process was really cathartic for me, because I relived losing Scott, the accompanying emotions, and then how I rebuilt my life. When people read it, and they come to me and say, "Michelle, your book has motivated me to take action with my own finances," it gives me chills and makes me feel that all this was for a reason. When people share their lives with me and I can help them, I feel that I am paying forward what I have learned.

Tell me about a moment when you made a difference.

Early on in my career, I was picking up my husband at Georgetown University Hospital after a procedure. As I walked down the hall I saw a plaque on the wall thanking a client of mine for a $5 million gift to the hospital from his charitable trust. And I thought, "That's the charitable trust that I suggested, designed for him, and helped him fund." This was validation that helping people with estate planning – and more specifically, philanthropic planning – had a direct impact in people’s lives. Now, people often approach me after I give a talk about my story and what women need to think about in their own financial lives, and they'll share a story about suicide, or about losing their spouse from an illness, or a recent divorce they've been through. They feel comfortable sharing with me, and that's been very rewarding.

What are some of the mistakes that you see people, especially women, making with their money?

The most common mistake that I see people making, especially women, is not prioritizing their financial health. We know we need to do it but it falls to the bottom of our list. This can take many forms: It might be leaving too much money in cash, not attending financial review meetings, or ignoring the financial topic altogether. At a minimum we have to be aware of what we own (assets) and what we owe (liabilities). It’s also important to establish short- and long-term goals, as well as a financial plan for how to achieve them. We need to have confidence that if an unplanned event happens in our future, we have the resources in place to continue living our lives with choices. Put another way, we need to put our financial health in the same category as our physical health. We need both to survive and to thrive. According to the CDC, women are living longer than men, so chances are that at some point in our lives we will be solely in charge of our finances. Not only do we need to prioritize our financial health, but we need to educate ourselves and then take action in our financial lives.

After working with clients of all socioeconomic backgrounds, what are some habits and attitudes that you've observed to be universal?

There are two big unifiers no matter what our backgrounds: The first is that we want the best for our children, whether we are able to leave them with a significant inheritance or very little. We want them to thrive, find happiness, and remain close after we are gone. The second big unifier is risk. I find that most people want to take as little investment risk as possible to achieve their goals. They want to maintain their lifestyle into retirement and feel financially secure, no matter what life throws at them.

What advice do you have for a couple who have recently become parents and maybe haven’t made the time to get all their longer-term legal and financial ducks in a row? I’m… asking for a friend.

Now is the time, because your life is only going more complicated! My advice is to plan a money date; make it fun, and start communicating about finances. This should be an ongoing discussion, not a one-and-done exchange. New parents are some of the busiest people I know and the demands on their time only increase. If something should happen to either parent, it’s important that the surviving parent be able to continue running the household and raise the kids. Creating a last will and testament, naming a guardian for minor children, and term life insurance top my list of must-haves, along with creating a financial plan to help meet long-term goals. Both husband and wife should make it a priority to attend regular meetings with their financial professional. You can never be too knowledgeable when it comes to educating yourself about your finances.

More of the 2019 Women to Watch Honorees: