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.
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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.