Advisors find there are two things most families avoid discussing: finances and death.

There’s no question inheritance and estate planning are critical aspects of the financial planning process. But how can advisors help clients who avoid talking about it with their families?

A UBS survey on inheritance planning found the main reason benefactors put off the discussion is that it doesn’t feel like a pressing issue, and 43% would prefer to put it off. Two other concerns were that about one-third of benefactors didn’t want their heirs to count on the inheritance, and more than a quarter (27%) worried that their heirs might feel entitled to wealth because of it. In addition, three out of four benefactors think it’s important their children avoid squandering their inheritance by using it wisely.

Heirs mirrored the feelings of the benefactors, with almost one-third of respondents reporting they didn’t feel as though it was a pressing issue. About a quarter of respondents said they refrained from bringing it up at the risk of “appear[ing] greedy.”

“There are a lot of barriers out there. There are concerns from the benefactor’s level, where obviously you don’t want offspring to be counting on the inheritance or feel entitled to the wealth,” says Maurice Bradshaw, managing director of wealth management at The Bradshaw Group of UBS in Boston. “It’s important that you make sure that it doesn’t derail the next generation when you have these conversations.” About half of heirs said their families don’t talk openly about financial issues at all.

FOSTERING THE CONVERSATION

While many clients may find conversations about inheritance and estate planning uncomfortable, advisors can help facilitate positive discussions by keeping dialogue with clients open-ended.

“Clients are the best judge of knowing their family situation,” says Peg Moore, managing director of investments at the Stutzmann-Moore Wealth Management Group of Wells Fargo Advisors in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Have an open-ended dialogue. It usually creates an environment where the client opens up.”

A good way to initiate the conversation is paying attention to what clients tell you about their lives. Advisors say it can be easier to initiate conversations about estate and inheritance planning based on life events.

“Advisors should take every life event opportunity in things that clients bring up,” says Ronnie Ringel, managing director and trust counsel at Fiduciary Trust Co. International. “If a client says, ‘I just had a grandchild,’ an advisor can say, ‘That’s really great — have you thought about setting up a 529 plan for your grandchild for college expenses?’”

If a client comes in ready to talk about inheritance planning, it’s a good idea to make sure the client knows what he or she wants to accomplish. Like many other facets and aspects of financial planning, experts say inheritance planning is most successful when it is goal-oriented. Ask: “Why are you planning on leaving this money behind?”

“Take a step back and ask why they’re considering the decision,” says Michael Liersch, head of behavioral finance at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. “When you get to the root or foundation of what the primary intent or purpose is, it really is about giving to someone else and having them benefit from that gift.”

Framing the conversation around goals and intent can make the planning process seem less daunting for your client — it focuses on what the gift means rather than facts and figures.

“In terms of broaching the communication, the great part about having the intent be the first step is it doesn’t need to necessarily involve dollar amounts,” Liersch adds.

GETTING THE FAMILY INVOLVED

Heirs sometimes worry that their parents haven’t done enough in terms of planning, and some benefactors feel uncomfortable discussing their pre-existing plans with their heirs.

As an advisor, you are familiar with your clients’ financial information. Sometimes, family members may only have a vague idea. With expressed permission from their clients, advisors can assume a third-party role in family meetings. Advisors say facilitating a conversation that puts both benefactors and heirs in the same room can lead to discussions on why client inheritance plans are built the way they are.

However, experts warn that your priority is to back up your client.

“From a practice management standpoint, we’ve had success with talking with the next generation alone. Individually, it’s less uncomfortable or awkward if it’s coming from a third party,” says UBS’s Bradshaw. “We take the lead from the benefactor.”

GIVING WHILE LIVING

Many benefactors may want to see their wealth in action while living. Many advisors say the “giving while living” strategy can allow your clients to pass on wealth during their lifetime. According to the UBS survey, 51% of benefactors who give while living pass on wealth because their heirs need it; 47% want to be able to see their children succeed.

Utilizing the giving while living strategy can also serve as a litmus test for heirs: Are they good stewards of the wealth? However, it’s important to exercise lifetime gifts with caution, Bradshaw notes. Benefactors should avoid overextending their assets to give while living. Instead, it needs to be a part of a comprehensive estate and inheritance plan.

“It makes [benefactors] feel good,” Bradshaw points out. “They get to see the impact they’re making on their children and grandchildren. It’s a good strategy, but it’s one that needs to be dealt with delicately.”

COLLABORATING IS KEY

While financial advisors often play the leading role when it comes to inheritance and estate planning, lawyers and CPAs play essential roles as well. It’s a good thing to show clients that you have a good working relationship when other professionals are involved. Experts say reaching out to your client’s CPA or attorney not only helps streamline the planning process, but it helps build clients’ trust.

“I have found that I’ve solidified a lot of our client relationships because I’ve opened up that engagement,” says Moore of Wells Fargo. “We describe it to the client as three legs to their stool. All three of those entities should be working on behalf of the client, facilitating their wishes and making sure that they’re doing it in the most effective way.”

Advisors tend to have the most face-time with clients when it comes to inheritance planning. Advisors can streamline clients’ planning processes by ensuring their financial information is available to the other professionals involved. If possible, facilitate a meeting that gets all of the players in the same room, suggest advisors and experts.

“I don’t know if there’s anything more powerful than saying, ‘The three of us think this is the right approach,’” Bradshaw says.

HELPING CLIENTS BUILD CONFIDENCE

Building client confidence, a key ingredient of inheritance planning, requires advisors to be open to different approaches and sensitive to the needs of benefactors and heirs.

Advisors say talking about inheritance does not need to be a dark conversation: Instead, advisors can help clients envision a bright future for their loved ones and help them contribute to the causes they care about.

“When you talk about an inheritance, there are many different options. There’s not necessarily one right way to do it,” Liersch says. “Really listening and taking in your clients’ perspectives and understanding what they’re trying to accomplish can often be an extraordinarily constructive starting point.”

 

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