From the October 2004 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

A Matter of Life and Death

Sooner or later, we all have a rendezvous with death. But many clients have powerful feelings that keep them from planning for this inevitable day.

It's the one sure thing in life, but many of us shrink from planning for it. Even those who handle other financial issues with aplomb can become anxious when forced to confront death.

This is not surprising. Money is already a taboo issue to many people. Coupled with the mystery of death, it turns into a bugaboo that drives us to act in primitive ways. Trying to think rationally about finances around the loss of a loved one, or worse, of ourselves, can transform simple circumstances into highly stressful situations for planner and client alike.

At such times your own fears may surface, making it difficult to counsel your clients. But if you have come to grips with your own mortality, you may be able to serve as a steadying influence in emotionally fraught situations like these.

My clients' late-in-life child was born with Down's syndrome. They're now in their 60s and know they need to make arrangements for his future after they die. But every time we start to talk about it, they break down. How can I help them begin to develop a plan? This couple is grieving at the prospect of leaving their child alone and vulnerable in the world. Are you the sort of professional who is, or can learn to be, comfortable in the presence of intense emotions like these? If you are, let your clients tear up, weep, or even sob in your empathetic presence, until they are calm enough to discuss potential strategies with you.

You might also recommend that they think about certain issues on their own, such as how soon they could help their child begin a transition to group living, if that is reasonable.

If they are so emotionally flooded that they just cannot move ahead with a plan, suggest that they visit a grief counselor or therapist to begin dealing with these feelings. If you schedule another consultation with them in three to six months, they may well have moved to a calmer place.

Try to sympathize with the difficulty of their situation while remaining the voice of hopeful resolution. You have an opportunity to help guide this couple in making their child's future more secure.

A client of mine recently brought in her sister, a gay woman I'll call Beth whose longtime partner, Jo, is dying of breast cancer. Jo's parents tried to deny Beth access to her in the hospital, and Beth expects that they will not share a penny of Jo's estate with her. There are measures that could be taken now to transfer at least some of these assets to Beth, but she fears seeming selfish if she brings up the subject with her ailing partner. How can I help this grief-stricken woman? This is a very painful situation: a loving couple faced with the double trauma of terminal illness and rejection by one (or both) of their birth families.

It's vital for you to support Beth by reassuring her that her "selfish" concern for her financial security is natural, and need not conflict with her love and concern for her partner's well-being. Ask if you could talk with Jo. You might tell Jo that Beth's sister has asked you to help Beth think about her future, but that you can't undertake this without Jo's aid.

You'll want to get together with both partners, if at all possible. Your position as an impartial third party allows you to be the voice of reassurance, reminding them that it is natural to be wracked with fear and uncertainty about their current situation. It is equally natural for each partner to be concerned about her future if and when the other partner is gone. By asking them to help you by clarifying their thoughts, you may be able to open up the issue.

But before you meet with them together, consider talking with the two women separately. This might allow each of them to voice more of her emotions about what is happening. It could enable you to ask Jo if she is satisfied with the disposition of her assets, and to explore how her family feels towards her partner.

If it seems appropriate, you might suggest that Jo and Beth invite Jo's parents to consult a family therapist with them. But even if reconciliation is a forlorn hope, I think you can help this couple move forward by advising them, rationally but empathetically, about the practical decisions they need to make.

One of my clients, a professional with her own business, has wanted for some time to begin estate planning with her attorney husband. He has promised to take care of it, but seems in no hurry. He's 64, she's 55, and they both have children from prior marriages. In frustration, she has asked me to help her develop an estate plan by herself. I can certainly do it, but what kind of murky marital waters will I be getting into? The first thing I would ask her to do is to join you in brainstorming possible ways to get her husband on board. If you become convinced (as she already seems to be) that he will not join her in consulting you, I am in favor of going forward without him.

There are two reasons for this. First, I'm convinced that your client will feel more in control of her own life after establishing an estate plan and clarifying how she wants her death to be handled. Also, the planning process will require you to ask questions and explore details that involve both husband and wife, so he will be drawn into the undertaking.

In fact, I suspect that your client's determination to pursue this process may light a fire under her procrastinating spouse. But even if it doesn't, she will end up feeling more confident and at peace by making plans for her loved ones after she is gone.

When my widowed client's adored terrier died, she decided to leave most of her estate to the Humane Society, where she got the dog originally. Her two adult children, who seldom communicated with their mom until they learned about this change in her will, are now making her life miserable. She says, "My little Jasmine gave me more joy in life than they ever have. Why shouldn't I leave my money as I please?" What's the best answer to this? As a therapist and coach, I see this uncomfortable situation as an opportunity for your client and her kids to examine their relationship, with the possibility of establishing a better connection before it's too late.

First of all, it's important not to trivialize the sense of grief and loss that accompanies the death of a beloved animal companion. I think it's altogether fitting that your client memorialize her pet with a legacy, if that's what she wants to do. The question is whether she is being fair to her children by excluding them from the bulk of her estate.

Their protests may arise from a feeling that they were starved of their mother's love and support in some way, so now they are seeking her money in reparation. It also seems that she feels they have failed or rejected her. Traumas like these are much better addressed when all three parties are still able to communicate with one another.

I would encourage your client to see if there are wounds that need to be healed on both sides before she finalizes her wishes. At the end of this process, she may still decide to give most or all of her money to the Humane Society. But it will be a decision more grounded in her values and her integrity, instead of a way to punish her children for past transgressions. Also, in confronting this difficult emotional conflict, she may be able to show her children that it is never too late for forgiveness and generosity of spirit--a legacy that could be even more valuable to them than dollars and cents.

My client's closest relative is her 75-year-old aunt, who has severe emphysema. After weathering a serious health crisis just a year ago, she has apparently gone into denial about the gravity of her medical condition and recently, to her niece's horror, took up smoking again. My client has asked me how to urge her aunt to create a power of attorney and an updated will, without upsetting the older woman by seeming to imply that she is not long for this world. How should I respond? Encourage your client to let her aunt know, in a self-revealing way, how worried she is about her and how this concern is giving her sleepless nights. She can convey this message in a note or phone call if she doesn't think her aunt can handle the emotional intensity of a face-to-face conversation. The important thing is to communicate her love and her escalating worry about her aunt's well-being.

If the aunt listens, she will be touched by her niece's distress and will say something like "I don't mean to worry you. Is there some way I can help you feel better?" This will provide an opening to talk about difficult issues like drafting a power of attorney agreement, updating her will, and taking good care of herself (e.g., not smoking).

If the aunt gets defensive, or insists that there is plenty of time to address these things later, I would advise the niece to step back and restore the normal relationship for a while, but not to give up. She can clip relevant articles for her aunt, and revisit the issues of the older woman's declining health or smoking addiction at another time in the near future.

I am reminded of my own father, who denied for years that his congestive heart failure was worsening, and who refused to get a hearing aid although he couldn't hear, wouldn't get a walker although he kept falling, and kept insisting he didn't need help although his loved ones kept providing help to him. Near the end of his life he surprised us all by surrendering to his impending death, which enabled us to gather around and freely share our love and memories with him. It seems that if people cannot overcome by themselves the urge to deny their mortality, nature herself will sometimes remedy the situation.

As you help your clients struggle with issues like these, I think it is important to have walked through and lived through the process of planning for your own demise. Explore your own feelings about death and dying, about what you want your legacy to be--emotionally, ethically, and materially.

It's never easy to contemplate loss of control, loss of vitality, loss of identity, loss of loved ones. But having faced the unknown, you will become a more empathetic and knowledgeable mentor, and your clients will feel more comfortable in letting you take their hand to guide them through these potentially scary places.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and consultant therapist, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor's Guide to Money Psychology. E-mail Olivia at om@moneyharmony.com.

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