Max Asnas, the colorful founder of New York City’s Stage Delicatessen, also famous as “The Corned Beef Confucius,” philosophized:
“Money is something you got to make in case you don’t die.”
Yep. But what’s the plan for passing along that accumulated wealth — assuming you have any — after scarfing your last cold-cuts sandwich?
Estate planning has always been infused with emotion. But now more so, given the higher incidence of second and third marriages, and complicated blended families of yours, mine and ours.
It’s a tough topic to bring up with clients: Typically they’re reluctant to face their mortality, so procrastination is the operative word. For many, it’s simply taboo, strictly off-limits.
However, this is an area where advisors can step in to make a real difference in clients’ lives and the lives of succeeding generations.
“We’re best to bring this dialogue to the surface because of our intimate relationship with clients,” says wealth management advisor Jordan B. Walters, who heads a team of three at Smith Barney in San Jose, Calif., which manages about $850 million in assets.
“It’s a professional responsibility that can extend the bonds of the client-advisor relationship: good for the client, the family and for long-term business. We develop lineage with our client base, uncover assets and are able to do a better holistic job of wealth planning. It’s absolutely a win-win,” says Walters.
But high-net-worth older clients are often secretive about how much money they have and to whom they plan to leave it. This can result, post-death, in angry, resentful spouses and children once the assets are distributed. What then occurs are family battles, estrangements — even ugly lawsuits.
Financial advisors can help prevent this havoc. After all, who’s in a better position to advise the client to structure a plan that brings the family into the conversation, if not the process? This can not only avoid fights later but lead to bonding and family harmony while the client is alive.
Though some may argue, “Leave estate planning to estate attorneys,” the five savvy wirehouse FAs we recently interviewed disagree. “When you’re providing comprehensive advice around finances, estate planning [should be] second, if not first, on your check-list,” says Dan Ludwin, an advisor with Wachovia Securities, in Richmond, Va. He and partner Dalal Salomon specialize in high-net-worth clients with a minimum of $1 million in investable assets.
Under the SurfaceThe key to estate planning that will make, not break, families: Encourage client openness in discussing intentions with spouses and children while the clients are still mentally fit.
Advisors should broach the subject as early as the initial interview. Sarah Cammiso, a Merrill Lynch advisor in Tysons Corner, Va., whose clientele is largely retired military personnel and folks in technology, says that, in her experience, most estate planning issues began with a financial discussion but “turned into something that had a much bigger human slant to it.
“The financial is the surface element that is actually driven by issues with the family. We uncover them by asking personal questions and drilling down to the more emotional needs,” she says.
Family harmony is one of the chief estate-planning themes addressed by the group of 40 FAs led by advisor Mary Ann Sisco, national director of wealth advisory, at JPMorgan Private Client Services, based in Chicago. Client net worth ranges from $1 million to $25 million or more. FAs often head off conflicts when, for example, distributions involve a closely held family business or summer home.
“Estate planning is the area where emotions absolutely run the highest. After a parent dies, things that have festered since childhood can come out…There’s usually a lot of memories and resentment that bubble up,” notes Sisco.
Distributions or lack thereof to ex-spouses or second or third wives are also potential landmines. Sometimes the new wife is shut out or, alternatively, biological children of the deceased feel gypped.
The way to avoid such painful scenarios is through thorough planning — paying close attention to details — and cultivating excellent communication with the client’s family, attorney and CPA.
“It’s really important to approach it as a team for the benefit of the family. Nobody on the team should feel adversarial because that can transfer to the family,” says Ami K. Forte, a wealth advisor with Morgan Stanley in Palm Harbor, Fla., who manages about $900 million in assets for ultra-high-net- worth clients.
Moreover, she says, where pre-existing hard feelings exist, it’s particularly important to document “every little thing of what [the client] wants to happen and who will control [the distribution] after they’re gone.”
One effective way to open the estate dialogue is to share real-life situations. “Wealthy individuals like to hear what other wealthy individuals are doing in their estate plans,” says Sisco.
She relates a case concerning a man who sold his company for more than $100 million, the bulk of which he planned to leave to charity. JPMorgan Private Client Services convinced him to discuss the matter with his adult children — who had no idea how much money their father had — in order “to communicate his philanthropic passion and try to instill it in them.”
“The children’s jaws hit the floor when they saw the total amount on the balance sheet. But it was good news-bad news,” says Sisco. “Good because their parents were incredibly wealthy; bad because they were giving it all to charity.”
However, after the initial shock wore off, the kids joined their parents in setting up a family foundation. Now, even a 5-year-old grandson has picked a charity: Ronald McDonald House.
Forte usually brings up the specter of high estate taxes. “If we don’t plan, the beneficiary is going to be the IRS,” she tells clients. “I’ve never run across anyone that’s worked hard their whole life and wants the IRS to be the inheritor.”
In sallying forth, first determine if the client wants to leave most of the estate to their family or to charity. After that, help them generate a dialogue with their spouse, children or both to try to avoid conflicts down the road. This also acts to retain the account and open new ones with family members upon the client’s death.
Cammiso says that in her practice, “more and more older investors are turning to their children to be part of the decision-making process. When they understand that the financial advisor has their best interest in mind, they’re much more likely to maintain the relationship than take the assets elsewhere.”
Potential Powder KegsSuch family meetings can uncover estate issues that are troubling to one or more member — and solutions can be sought. For instance, who will take over a family business?
“If the next generation has ownership in the ultimate decision-making,” says Smith Barney’s Walters, “most likely the [siblings] will support each other downstream.”
He recalls a patriarch — not his client — who’d developed a successful company. He had four children, one of whom with far more business acumen than the others. However, the client believed that if he left the company to that child, the others would “do what they could to ultimately bring the business down.”
A psychologist suggested that the four siblings meet on their own to come up with the best answer. Interestingly, they decided that the shrewd sib should run the business and that the others should be involved tangentially.
Another potential power keg is real estate, especially a second home that’s left to children as a group. Often siblings fail to reach agreement on whether or not to sell it. One solution: Those who want to keep the property can buy out the interests of those preferring to sell. In a different scenario, the house can be placed in a special trust along with funds for upkeep and taxes.
The distribution of precious art can set off nasty fights too. Just who is to get what should therefore be specified. A client of Dan Ludwin even put Post-It notes, with individual names spelled out, behind each objet d’art. This way, he says, “there aren’t any questions later.”
But that wasn’t how things played out with one of Ami Forte’s clients, who, she recalls, “got into a major squabble [with a sibling] about an antique tea set and punch bowl that weren’t [even] valuable. They had sentimental value. Finally, one person took the tea set; the other, the bowl. I don’t think there’s a very good relationship there now.”
“The bad blood comes from selfishness,” says Ludwin. “It’s not, ‘What would Daddy have wanted.’ It’s, ‘This is mine, and someone else is taking it.’ But it isn’t yours.”
While some FAs feel they should maintain neutrality in client disputes, others believe it’s an advisor’s responsibility to take a stance.
“There’s a point where you need to say, ‘This is not right. Here’s what should be done to make it right,’” says Ludwin. One client, wed to his second wife for two years, was planning to leave nothing to his first spouse after promising earlier that she’d receive part of his estate. They’d been married for 25 years and had two children.
“We felt it was our obligation to step in,” says Ludwin. “‘She didn’t sue you for child support,’” we reminded him. “‘If you do this, she’s not going to be able to retire, ever.’”
Ludwin suggested a meeting with the husband and both wives, and the four got together. In the end, the client decided that the first wife would indeed receive a portion of the assets. The current spouse inherited the house and other assets, but they were placed in a marital trust limiting her total withdrawal.
Early ActionWhether taking an aggressive approach or staying out of the fray, advisors should impress upon clients that to prevent family dissension, estate issues should try to be ironed out as early as possible, that is before, not after, the client’s death.
Besides, notes Sisco: “Explaining the rationale of why you are, for example, treating each child differently, will also help you achieve the goals you set up in creating the estate plan in the first place.”
Another critical point to discuss with clients — and their estate attorneys — is naming a successor trustee, who is given authority to manage the asset distribution when a trust has been established. Perceived as a family honor, it is a job that, nonetheless, comes with a heavy workload and significant responsibility as well as liability.
Many JPMorgan clients name both an individual and a corporate trustee, says Sisco. “The individual knows the family and can make all the family decisions, but the corporate fiduciary can actually do all the work and make sure it’s done right.”
Estate planning is the area where advisors must perhaps don their psychologist hats most often.
“There’s a ton of emotional guidance and support we give that’s far beyond investments,” says Ludwin. “Investments are the engine in the car, but you’ve got to make sure the car is going in the right direction. The ultimate stop is the end of your life.”
Above all, notes Forte, advisors must think: “Who are these people, and how is sudden wealth going to affect them, which, often, is not well.”
Still, proper planning can go a long way to draw families together. “The absolutely perfect situation,” says Forte, “is when you bring in everyone and they feel they’re part of it. They have a chance to express their opinions — and can make a case for the teapot, or whatever, ahead of time. Those are the ones that go smoothly, and they can be beautiful.”
Here are three estate planning dilemmas and how wirehouse advisors handled them:
o An ultra-high-net-worth couple had trouble telling their adult children how much they loved them. Smith Barney advisor Jordan Walters suggested the parents gift them by moving assets out of their estate.
This would lead to intimate family dialogue, bonding, the children’s current access to funds — and lower estate taxes later.
The client asked that a meeting be held in Walters’ office and for the advisor himself to explain everything to the children.
“Not only were the assets transferred but we communicated values and created a wonderful legacy and mutual respect,” says Walters. “Everybody was crying. I thought, ‘What a significant contribution we can make in our clients’ lives.’”
o At his request, a JPMorgan advisor shared a client’s estate plan with his family. The client was confident the document would ensure harmony. Instead, says Mary Ann Sisco, national director of wealth advisory, “the four [adult] children were quite upset” because, among other issues, a provision allowed the trustee to make an additional distribution to prop up any child who was falling behind the others in standard of living.
“Suppose my brother hasn’t worked,” Sisco recalls their saying. “Why should we subsidize him?”
But when the four discussed the plan with their father, he revised it.
“This is about…fleshing out some of the issues you might not have thought about and having that conversation while you still have time on your side,” says Sisco.
o A client of Wachovia Securities advisor Dan Ludwin has two daughters. One, married, is doing well financially. The other, single and with a nomadic lifestyle, has relatively little. Since one daughter is financially set, the client wants to leave the other child far more money.
“We said, ‘Is that fair?’” says Ludwin. “‘You want to penalize the one who’s successful? You’re probably going to create animosity.’”
Result: The client is carefully re-thinking her decision.
Freelance writer Jane Wollman Rusoff is a Los Angeles-based contributing editor of Research and is the founder of Family Star Productions.