When Janet Schaefer's father died, the former health care administrator jumped in to help her elderly mother wade through mounds of paperwork. Where were the life insurance policies? Military service record? Account information necessary to cancel credit cards? "If anybody could find out this information, it was me. I'd worked in the field," says Schaefer. "But it was frustrating, exasperating -- and it definitely colors what I do today."
Who: Janet Schaefer, Life Event Services Manager, Wachovia Securities, Richmond, Va.
Sound Bite: "When our financial advisors ask us questions, it's about themselves and their families as well as their clients. If it's on your mind, it's on your client's mind, too....This isn't just stuff, it's real life."
Over the last 18 months, Schaefer has developed a leading-edge department at Wachovia Securities that provides up-to-the-minute information to financial advisors on topics not traditionally associated with a client's portfolio: Social Security, Medicare, elder care, heath insurance, home safety, fraud protection, identity theft, adoption, divorce and long-term care, among them.
"Financial advisors were telling the firm this wasn't exactly a portfolio issue, but it might impact the portfolio. They kept getting questions challenging the advising process," says the 53-year-old Schaefer, Wachovia's first-ever Life Event Services Manager. "Their message: We need a resource."
Today, Schaefer and a staff of five -- a tax expert, an estate-planning attorney, two certified financial planners and a website specialist -- provide direct support to Wachovia's advisors through phone consultations, webinars and compliance-approved documents on everything from taxes to family disaster plans.
Schaefer's unit has clearly hit a nerve. Between March and December, there were 154,000 downloads of Life Event Services documents and over 35,700 hits on the group's internal home page.
Branch manager Marcia Tillotson, who oversees 22 advisors in Charlotte, N.C., calls the home office effort "huge."
As she puts it: "A lot of financial advisors have built our own libraries -- basically a file drawer with folders labeled 'tax reform,' 'long-term care,' 'Social Security.' The problem is we were reinventing the wheel every day because the second you put an article in, it was outdated. We did it anyway because it was our best way to get information. But none of it was compliance-approved to send to a client."
Now, Tillotson says, "It's client-approved, we get to print it off in color and we can put our name on it? It's been huge. I use it as reference material and as a way to reach out and touch clients." Best yet, she adds, "We don't need that file drawer anymore."
This month, in addition to daily dispatches that can be accessed on an advisor's computer desktop, Life Event Services will highlight its new life planner. The 12-page document serves as a personal document locator for dozens of items, including wills, passports, divorce papers, medical contacts -- even contact information for the family plumber and electrician. It also answers tough questions that never get asked in a lot of families: Do you want a funeral? What hymns do you want sung? What are your wishes for your pets, in the event of your death? There's also space for biographical data that can be shifted into an obituary.
The life planner can be downloaded -- or filled out online. "It covers all the information that, if something happened to you, your spouse would need to know," says Schaefer. "It's just a great starting point."
Other documents that have been disseminated: a document retention reminder, outlining when you should shred or retain important papers, and a wallet-size personal medical record card, listing medications, dosages, allergies and health-care providers. "The biggest reason health care gets delayed is because you don't have that information when you need it," according to Schaefer. Life Event Services had 35,000 of the cards in stock; they were gone in three days.
Like her job, Schaefer's career path has been anything but traditional. She grew up in Virginia and began working for a manufacturing facility right out of high school. At one point, she ran a plant with 500 employees in Pennsylvania that produced electronic connectors for the military.
Fourteen years ago, after her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Schaefer returned to Virginia to be close to her parents. She ran a manufacturing plant there for six years, then joined the Virginia Department for the Aging as programs director. "We were dealing with the frailest of the frail, the poorest of the poor," notes Schaefer.
When Wachovia hired her, she was Virginia's director of long-term care. She had been introduced to Wachovia when representatives from the firm consulted with her department on long-term care and aging issues.
The chief topics advisors now query her about involve Social Security, taxes, health care, long-term care and Medicare. While much of the unit's work involves aging, Schaefer says she's also designing programs aimed at younger people.
"Because all of us are beginning to ask these questions, thank God we're reaching people earlier -- in their 30s and 40s. As advisors go through the planning process with their clients, all these things come into play. It's not just about their retirement income and how to pay the light bill, it's all these other issues," she says.
On a board in Schaefer's office is a list of 40 topics financial advisors have told her they'd like to see addressed in the coming year -- domestic partnership, creditor protection and grandparents raising grandchildren, among them.
"People are learning that investment planning is not just about the dollars and the performance. It's about all of these life goals and concerns," she says. "And I think we've just touched the tip of the iceberg."
Freelance writer Ellen Uzelac is based in Chestertown, Md.; the former West Coast bureau chief and national correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, can be reached at email@example.com.