Aging Clients? Understanding the Secrecy About Finances
Have you ever had a stubborn older client who told you he’d never talk about his assets with anyone but you?
He doesn’t think he’ll ever need help in his life and he wants to be in charge. When you suggest a family meeting to let someone else know what to do in case he ever became ill and unable to communicate, he shuts you down. This is all too common.
A consistent obstacle to communication we see in our work is the resistance of the older person to discuss finances with anyone, including their adult children or other heirs. The Great Depression led to secrecy about finances for many, as fortunes were lost sometimes overnight and once proud people became impoverished. Talking openly about money was just not done for those who grew up in this time of widespread devastating and sometimes life-ending financial losses. To this segment of our population, openly discussing money was considered rude, unseemly. Some of these Depression-era survivors remain reluctant to tell anyone in their families where their accounts are, what their assets are and what they want done with their assets in the event of incapacity.
Presumably when you have a long-term relationship with your client, she trusts you and trusts your judgment. That gives you leverage. You may know more about her finances than her family, her friends or anyone in her life. You are charged with the task of long range planning and you look ahead. In doing so, it is up to you to urge your client, gently, repeatedly and with ongoing persistence that she find someone she can trust to appoint to protect her if she has an accident, falls ill, or can’t speak for herself.
Sometimes persistence pays. The power of your relationship is a tool to persuade your client to come around. This is not a situation to ignore just because your client resists. The older she is, the more there is at risk. Anything can happen to her health at any time.
If your client resists, we encourage you to repeat your requesting a week or a month. Do it in a tactful way and paint a verbal picture for her of what would happen if she were no longer able to speak for herself. Tell her how frustrating it would be to have to refer her account to your legal department for a decision about getting a court involved if she could no longer communicate. Tell her how upset that would make you feel. Express your own concerns and make it your problem.
We hope that every single person in your book of business has an appointed trusted other for you to contact. You may well need that and it can be up to you to urge your client to take care of that most important piece of legal business, the Durable Power of Attorney, if she has not done this. Diminished capacity can sneak up on your client and you’ll need help.
It’s a new role you have with the oldest clients. They are living longer than they thought they would and with longevity come the risks of impairment in all ways.
When it Comes to Your Money, Does the Truth Hurt?
“We’ve been arguing about this for year, and here we are in our 50’s. It’s time to stop!” Laura said empathically.
Paul’s downcast eyes and silence spoke volumes.
Laura continued, “We’ve worked with several advisors who have tried to help us invest our money in a sensible way. Then whenever the market goes down, Paul calls the advisor and tells him to sell everything! In all these years, no matter how much we work to build our financial security, we’re always playing catchup.”
Her words hung like a rain cloud about to burst when Paul began to speak. “I know, I know. I just can’t help it. I get nervous that we’re going to lose all our money. When the market goes down, I scramble—in my thoughts and in my actions. The driving force behind it is: At least if it’s in cash, the balance won’t go down.”
This is the moment where I felt I could lend my advice. First, I needed to learn about this particular couple and their values. Then, I could begin helping them take control of their finances.
“Tell me Paul,” I said. “What did you learn about money growing up? What messages did you hear as a child about money? From your father? From your mother?”
Paul’s eyes moved up and to the left, indicating his mind was reaching for memory. “My parents never talked to us kids about money, really. The one thing that stands out is my grandfather talking about The Great Depression and how it was such a tragic time. My parents both worked, but they never made a lot of money. They fought about money sometimes.”
“Any other memories about money?”
“Actually, yes. I remember when my father took me to the bank to open up a passbook savings and how exciting it was. The bank manager typed the passbook on this old manual typewriter and gave it to me. He showed me how the interest on the account added to the amount I deposited. I felt very grown up that day! But I guess that was the sum total of money training from my parents.”
“Can you help me understand how you and Laura make financial decisions?”
The question couldn’t be more impactful if a boulder had landed on his head. While Laura looked at Paul with a mildly accusatory glare, Paul searched for something to say that would keep his well-conceived protective fortress from crumbling. I interjected to ease the tension. I could feel the guilt in the air.
“Let me frame that another way, Paul and Laura. We all do the best we can as we live our lives. Let’s face it, our lives are filled with responsibilities in our families and our jobs, not to mention outside interests, health, and friends. While financial issues are important, unless you either have the knowledge and experience—or the help, most people avoid getting too deep into the confusion of managing their finances by doing the very least they can. What we don’t know scares us. So we defer, delay, make rash decisions based on our lack of time, knowledge, desire. Add a dash of fear to that equation, and you have a formula for financial problems. I want you to know, you are not alone. It’s more common than you could even imagine. The question is, do we allow the truth in so that we can move forward?”
It’s important to admit the truth behind our actions in order to rectify past and future mistakes or regrets. Living in denial only perpetuates making decisions that could potentially lead to financial disaster.
“I hate to admit it,” Paul said. “I guess in my desire to protect Laura from stress, I’ve made decisions that have hurt us, and I’m sorry. Michael, you hit the nail on the head. You defer, avoid, and allow your emotions to take over. And as a result, bad stuff happens. I think I’m ready to ask for help.”
Laura’s expression softened, and said, half-kiddingly, “You think?”
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