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How Advisors Can Turn the Tide on Estate Planning

A new study demonstrates the serious problems financial advisors face in getting clients to make estate planning a priority.

The report, from BMO Wealth Management, finds that more than 55 percent of Canadian adults between the ages of 35 and 54 don’t have a will, and 40 percent of all adults “have never discussed their estate intentions with their children.”

“Communication about your estate plan helps to reduce potential conflict among your heirs in the future and to ensure that your estate is distributed as you would like,” the report stated.

By and large, financial advisors tell

InsuranceNewsNet that the estate planning communications process, along with the actual execution process, continues to be a nonstarter for too many clients — even affluent ones.

“I sound like a broken record with my clients and continually bring the topic up at each meeting until they finally get tired hearing about it from me,” said Brett Anderson, president of St. Croix Advisors in Hudson, Wis. “Yes, it’s hard to come to terms with our own mortality, not to mention hugging the monster when it comes to facing the family issues that are involved with our estate planning.”

But a good planner can help address the unknowns, fears and land mines that are hindering clients in the estate planning process, he added.

Few money managers argue with that position, but as the old laboratory saying goes, “There’s theory, and then there’s actual execution.”

“I’m not surprised about the BMO results,” said Karen Strauss, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based financial planner and founder of the Sensible Money financial management blog. “Many people prefer to avoid dealing with the fact that they’re aging and the prospect of the end of life.”

 

‘Far From the Truth’

The most common error Strauss sees from clients is the belief that because they have a will and trust, everything is in order.

“But this is far from the truth. In fact, for many, a will may be the least important part of their plan,” she said.

Clients need to know that the primary purpose of estate planning is leaving assets according to their specific wishes, operating under a “family legacy” platform.

“It’s not that complicated,” Strauss said. “Many estate planning goals can be accomplished by properly structuring account registrations, asset titles and beneficiary designations.”

So what is the best path to good estate planning? Couple the communications process with that “creating a family legacy” marketing plan that gets clients moving on their family’s financial future, many say. To do that, financial advisors have to play a big role.

“With estate planning, you’ve got to use your financial advisor, especially on the family communications front,” said Maggie Johndrow, a financial planner with Farmington River Financial Group in Farmington, Conn.

“One of the reasons that I joined Farmington River as a younger advisor was to bridge the gap between existing clients and their children,” she said. “Often, when we have meetings with our existing clients, we encourage them to bring their children into a meeting to make the conversation a family affair.”

Clients may be reluctant to have that conversation, but they shouldn’t be, Johndrow said.

“One certainly does not need to disclose everything to their children, but it helps to get the conversation started,” she explained. “Using a financial advisor as an educator and mediator in the conversation also alleviates a lot of tension.”

Families should have the estate planning talk as early as possible, given family age realities, Johndrow added.

“Have the conversation while everyone is healthy,” she said. “There are few things more disheartening than having the estate planning conversation when a family member is already sick. The entire family is stressed, and they feel they are pressured to make important decisions quickly.”

 

Get Families Together

One way for advisors to get families together on the estate planning page is to offer a free estate planning workshop – there’s a more substantial “comfort level” in a group setting, Johndrow said.

“We often host free estate planning workshops for our clients and encourage them to bring their friends and family,” she said. “We’ve provided estate planning events for both ends of the spectrum: for newlyweds and expectant parents and for those already in retirement.”

This format seems less daunting to many people because it’s getting general information versus speaking specifically about your situation, Johndrow added.

“We’ve found that most people, after they attend a seminar and realize what estate planning entails, end up wanting to better prepare themselves,” she said.

Perhaps the best strategy in the family legacy theme is to merge an emotional appeal with a structural one.

“When doing financial planning, I dig deep, get to know my clients and their families,” said Breanna Reish, a certified financial planner at TriCord Advisors in Riverside, Calif. “We then have discussions about their passions and how they want to leave that legacy with the ones they love. Once we get through those exercises, I remind them that we cannot do that without the proper documents in place.

“I have a very comfortable and candid relationship with some clients. With them, the conversation may become very blunt. With others, I kindly bug them enough until they get it done, but they know I bug them because I truly care.”

Truly getting clients on board with an estate plan is an uphill climb. But appealing to their family legacies, it appears, is a good way to get the ball rolling before it’s too late.

 

Brian O’Connell is a former Wall Street bond trader, and author of the best-selling books The 401(k) Millionaire and CNBC’s Guide to Creating Wealth. He’s a regular contributor to major media business platforms, including CBS News, The Street.com and Bloomberg. Brian may be contacted at [email protected]

Brian O’Connell is a former Wall Street bond trader, and author of the best-selling books The 401(k) Millionaire and CNBC Creating Wealth: An Investor’s Guide to Decoding the Market. He’s a regular contributor to major media business platforms, including CBS News, TheStreet.com, and Bloomberg. Brian may be contacted at brian.oconnell@ innfeedback.com.


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