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FA Center: What top financial advisers will tell you about creating a lasting legacy for the important people and causes in your life

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Financial advisers help clients achieve a richer, fuller life — and death.

Financial planners often urge clients to envision their passing — and its effect on their loved ones. It’s a grim but necessary part of the job. The fear of death can shut down such conversations. Clients may change the subject and refuse to engage, leaving advisers struggling to broach estate planning, life insurance and other priorities.

“All of it is uncomfortable,” said Tracy Sherwood, a certified financial planner in Williamsville, N.Y. “No one wants to think of their untimely demise.”

Rather than pressure clients to confront the Grim Reaper, Sherwood prefers to proceed in baby steps. She might begin by asking them to complete advance directive forms. At a subsequent meeting, she may invite them to consider their legacy and list core values they want to pass on to family members.

“Instead of leaving them with their fears, I’ll remind them that everything we’re doing puts them in the best position to make the best decisions today while they can,” she said. “If we can agree to meet with an estate-planning attorney, that’s one way of moving forward.”

Some clients will avoid the topic and wave off their adviser’s repeated attempts to address it. Others will engage in what Russell James, a professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University, calls “symbolic immortality” — imagining they will never die.

Words matter

Indulge clients who seem reluctant to acknowledge the inevitability of death. How? Kick off an estate planning discussion by saying, “Let’s look at how you can elevate the lives of your children and grandchildren and give back to your community for generations to come.”

“Use language that has a long-term, lasting, positive impact,” James said. “If the client has a desire for social approval, provide solutions that have a permanent social impact” and satisfy a yearning to leave an inspiring legacy.

Word choice is critical. Ironically, the most productive death-related discussions rarely involve mention of death.

Advisers who recommend an annuity are better off describing how it continues “as long as you live” rather than “as long as you live until you die,” James says. He suggests that advisers underscore how an annuity can “protect an inheritance for your family” or “increase the benefit of your bequest.”

Beware of introducing too many hypothetical scenarios (“If you die in 10 years, then the annuity would…, but if you die in 20 years., then…”). Certain clients won’t mind plugging in their death date and running the numbers. But it’s possible they will tune out after a certain point if the adviser keeps adjusting their projected longevity.

Even the way an adviser crafts an agenda in advance of a meeting can influence how the client responds. James recommends listing topics such as “asset protection,” “tax planning” and “protecting your retirement savings” as opposed to “estate planning” or “survivor benefits” that can trigger death-related thoughts.

Appealing to a client’s eagerness to exert control can prove effective as well. One reason that some individuals dread thinking about their death is their anxiety about losing stewardship over the lives of those closest to them.

“If people see there are ways to control things from the grave, they can be more receptive,” said Elliot Herman, a certified financial planner in Quincy, Mass. They might want to take steps now to preserve family harmony later.

Examples include accounts of clients who did not update the beneficiary on their life insurance policy (thus causing the payout to go to an unintended recipient) or estates held up by probate where an ex-spouse fights for a greater share and embroils the whole family — and the media — in the ensuing court battle.

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