In a sign of changing times for our industry, the leading edge of the baby-boomer generation turns age 70 this year. Over the next decade and beyond, advisers will increasingly have to attend to the needs of grieving survivors, as well as grieve the passing of clients themselves. Do you have a plan for how your firm will deal with this new reality?
RESPONDING TO THE DEATH OF A CLIENT
How firms respond to the death of a client depends on a number of key variables, including:
• The number of households a firm has
• Where the office is located (e.g., a major metropolitan area or a small, tight community)
• The firm's business model (Ensemble firms tend to need a more consistent approach.)
For example, some advisers will travel a great distance to attend a funeral, while others may choose to attend only a local ceremony. Sending flowers for the wake, a fruit basket to the home or a donation to a memorial organization identified by the family are common responses, as is sending a sympathy card. Occasionally, doing nothing may be appropriate as well.
Personal preferences, as well as community expectations, often play a role as well. One adviser from a small town said her absence at a client's funeral would be conspicuous while another explained, “When we hear of a client's passing, we pause and assess the closeness of the relationship so we respond in an authentically appropriate way.” For those clients who are particular favorites of the firm, one adviser takes a moment at staff meetings to acknowledge their passing and note the contributions the firm has made to the individuals and their families. Yet another firm with hundreds of households in a metropolitan area acknowledged that they sometimes didn't know when a client had passed away.
There was one commonality among all the firms I spoke with, and that was the value they provided to the survivors of the deceased. Often, a spouse who may not have been involved in managing the family's wealth is suddenly thrust into a new role. Even more challenging for advisers are situations where the couple had never signed a power of attorney or financial proxy documents. The more sudden the passing of a client, the more time the adviser tended to spend with the surviving spouse and/or family. Not surprisingly, most firms noted being more acutely affected when the loss was unexpected, due to sudden illness or accident.
DEVELOPING YOUR OWN PLAN
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross is often quoted for articulating the five stages of grief, which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While we instinctively want to make the pain go away, the reality is that we can't go around the grieving process; we have to go through it.
If your firm hasn't experienced the loss of a client, you've been lucky; but that doesn't mean you shouldn't prepare for this unfortunate — and inevitable — event. So what should you think about when putting together your own bereavement plan? Here are some considerations:
• Schedule extra time for the first meeting with a surviving spouse just to listen.
• Set reminders to check in regularly (e.g., monthly) with survivors over the next six to 12 months to see how they are doing. Grief can lead many to neglect their own health or become isolated.
• Create a list of organizations in your area that provide support to surviving spouses or family members and make it available to your clients.
• Set a standard for how all advisers and staff in the firm should interact with the family and whether they will attend calling hours or funerals.
• Offer clients a checklist of things an executor should be aware of and the possible steps to take to handle the probating of the estate.
• Document your bereavement policy in your employee handbook to set expectations for all advisers and staff in the firm.
Everyone deals with loss differently. Some shut down, while others become overly empathetic. Keeping your responses deliberate, thoughtful and consistent can help you and your staff provide the level of support survivors will need from you in their time of grief.
Joni Youngwirth is managing principal of practice management at Commonwealth Financial Network.