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The Inner Workings of Clients’ Financial Decision-Making Ability


The Inner Workings of Clients’ Financial Decision-Making Ability

Whether you have a lot of older clients or just an occasional one, it’s critical for every financial professional to understand whether a client can safely make decisions about money. It might seem straightforward when your client is able to carry on a conversation, talk about current events or make a joke. You assume she’s fine, but it’s not that simple. Conversational ability can mask a true disabling brain condition we call dementia. It does not reveal itself easily, particularly at the earliest stage.

The insidious onset of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia can sneak up on a client and affect the ability to exercise judgment about finances. To help your clients, you need to know the red flags of diminished capacity, a basic skill anyone can learn. You can get a free checklist to help your do that at But beyond that, it is critical to understand just how complex our capacity to make safe financial decisions is.

Research shows us that with the most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, financial capacity is moderately impaired even at the very beginning of the disease process. By the time a client gets to the middle stage when symptoms are more obvious she is already severely impaired in her financial capacity. No one should be making independent decisions about finances with severe impairment of this capacity.

This financial ability is defined as “the capacity to manage money and financial assets in ways that meet a person’s needs and which are consistent with his/her values and self interest.” 

It is broken down into nine areas or “domains”. These include cash management, basic money skills, bill payment, and financial conceptual knowledge. The ones an advisor is most likely to see and assess are knowledge of personal assets and estate and investment decision-making.

You may not discuss with your client whether he understands what a money market is but you will be ethically obligated to discuss the pros and cons of various suggested investments and the effect they will have on your client’s overall financial picture. This is the area where older clients with impairment will not be able to process the information you are offering them. When they are affected by brain disease like Alzheimer’s (over 5.5 million people are diagnosed now, with that number expected to rise dramatically) they will not be able to “get it”. You are on dangerous ground if you proceed to recommend or sell any financial product in the face of serious doubt about a client’s financial capacity.

Granted, many financial products are complicated and the average person may not grasp all the nuances. But when you believe your client is probably impaired and cannot understand any carefully worded explanation you give, you are exposing yourself to liability by going ahead with transactions for that person.

How could this get you in trouble?

All of the regulatory agencies want you to keep your older clients safer and they have issued guidelines for how to do that. All of them want you to know the red flags of diminished capacity. Financial capacity is the most complex of the kinds of capacity a person can have. If you do not involve a third party to assist the client with financial decisions, you risk a bad outcome and regulatory prosecution. You also risk the heirs coming after you in civil lawsuits, charging that you should have known what everyone else knew at the time, that their mother/father was impaired and you should never have sold that, done that or caused the bad outcome.

This is a very real problem among financial professionals– the failure to recognize and act on the warning signs of diminished capacity. If you are managing a retirement account for that client, beware even more. Acting in the client’s best interest means that you need to understand when the client’s financial decision-making capacity is going downhill.

This article just touches on the complexity of financial capacity. Everyone deserves to have a deeper understanding so you can avoid prosecution or questionable accusations about your recommendations or the client’s investments. When the investment an impaired client went for at your suggestion loses money, you can bet someone will blame you if they can. Don’t set yourself up. Don’t make it easy for them to attack you.

The way around this risk of working with an impaired client is to have your client’s permission to involve a trusted third party as a surrogate decision maker for all financial transactions. How you get that permission is the subject of another article and it needs discussion. In the meantime, take a deeper dive into the nuts and bolts of financial capacity in Succeed With Senior Clients: A Financial Advisor’s Guide to Best Practices, available here. Chapter Two explains all you need to understand about the components of financial capacity. And the privacy question and how to get that trusted other involved is answered in the book too.

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