When Joan Shaffer's husband died last year, she went out and bought a variable annuity because it was an investment that she wouldn't have to look after every minute.

Shaffer, 68, who lives in Raleigh, N.C., says she chose variable annuities from her bank, Centura, because she can get her hands on the money in case there's an emergency.

"Suppose I have to go into a retirement home? That's a large expense all at once. That's what I was thinking about: protecting myself," she said.

Given that wives tend to outlive their husbands, the market for elderly widows is one that bank insurance program shouldn't ignore, according to experts.

Most elderly widows can benefit from annuities and long-term-care insurance, they said.

But those who are more affluent may be interested in estate life insurance products, which helps the widow pass on her estate without paying a lot of taxes.

Roger Forystek, president of Citizens Insurance Agency, Evansville, Ind., said banks were poor at tapping this market because banks are more transaction-oriented.

"Banks are targeting the retirement community, but not the widow," he said. "It's hard, because that's getting so specific."

Nevertheless, widows have special needs that bank insurance programs can address.

For example, about 13% of women who reach their 65th birthday will have to spend five or more years in a nursing home, compared to 4% of men, according to Kenneth Kehrer, a bank insurance consultant in Princeton, N.J.

Moreover, elderly people are more likely to prefer dealing with bank personnel than insurance agents because most of them already have a relationship with the bank, according to consultants.

David Kaytes, a managing vice president at First Manhattan Consulting Group, said the banks were in a good position to provide annuities and insurance products to widows because they have been a trusted provider of financial advice throughout the person's life.

"First, the bank has credibility and second, the widow knows they will be there when she needs them," Mr. Kaytes said.

Mr. Kehrer said widows have a particular need for long-term health care.

"They're not a strong prospect for life insurance because they don't have a family to protect," he said. "The insurance they need is that they may wind up with a long-term illness and need to be in a nursing home and their savings could be wiped out by that."

Mr. Kehrer added that widows tend to buy annuity products because they don't like to pay taxes and it helps them defer taxes until they die. And that is a perfect fit for banks, which are good at selling fixed and variable annuity products.

Widows are attracted to annuities because they can provide an income stream.

With estate life insurance, the insured pays a sizable premium and a large death benefit passes on a tax-advantaged basis to the beneficiary.

"It's a way of paying off much of the estate tax and still passing on the principal to your beneficiaries," Mr. Kaytes said.

Bank insurance programs often depend upon personal relationships and senior citizen clubs to market to the elderly widow. But most banks said they do not make a special effort to reach this subset of the retirement community.

Mr. Forystek added that the biggest way to tap into the elderly-widow market is through existing relationships on the bank side.

"They are comfortable with banks," he said. "They use the branches more than anybody else. Another point of contact is seniors clubs seminars but it comes back to the primary contact and that is the relationship they've built over the years at the bank branches."

And how should banks catch the widow's attention? According to Mr. Forystek, the best way is also one of the cheapest ways: bank statement stuffers.

"Stuffers in bank statements are effective because these customers actually read their statements."

Summit Bancorp, Princeton, N.J., has sponsored some seminars for topics such as long term care, living will, and investments. But Jack Cussen, senior vice president of Summit Bancorp's retail investment and insurance programs, says it is educational rather than an attempt to write a lot of business.

There are some things that banks can do to appeal to elderly widows.

Mr. Kehrer said banks can better accommodate the physical problems of seniors. "For example, it's much harder for a senior to be able to see in a normal or subdued light that you would have in a typical office. They need a brighter light to read a brochure or contract. They would also benefit from bigger print," Mr. Kehrer said.

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