I’m a certified public accountant and head of a comprehensive financial services company. Many people may find it surprising that my work has anything in common with that of a doctor or a nurse, but — like many health care professionals — people often share some of the most intimate details of their lives with me.
Financial planning is all-encompassing. Once I build a strong relationship with a client, we discuss their hopes, fears, and dreams. When it’s appropriate, I also try to talk about their wishes for end-of-life care.
A Natural Conversation
End-of-life decision-making can be a challenging subject to address for a doctor whose patient is facing a terminal illness, but it’s often a natural part of the conversation with my clients. When someone asks me, “Am I going to be financially solvent 10 years after I retire?” I help them talk about the range of choices they might have to make in different scenarios. Always careful to go at the pace most comfortable for the client, I listen carefully to their answers to various questions, including:
- What if you become disabled?
- What if you or your spouse suffers from cancer?
- What if one of you passes much earlier than you anticipate?
- What do you think about nursing homes?
My goal is to engage a client in a robust conversation about their future. I tell them, “Your end of life may not necessarily turn out the way you imagine. Let’s talk about how to position yourself so that you can take care of yourself, your family, and your partner or spouse.” Clients understand that different options have different financial ramifications, so they typically welcome the discussion.
A Matter of Trust
I’ve had many of my clients for a long time. I’ve worked with some of them since they were 30-35 years old, and now they’re in their 60s or 70s. I’ve gone through various life stages right along with them, so we’ve developed strong relationships.
But it’s also possible to build the kind of human connection that supports candid end-of-life care discussions relatively quickly. I have newer clients who came in to start talking about financial issues, and I asked, “Do you have a health care proxy?” They said, “You’re the first person who’s ever asked me that. What is that? How does it work?” I think they appreciate thoroughness and attention to detail. I start to earn their trust by demonstrating that I want to help them make important decisions.
There’s a lot of teaching that is part of financial planning, but I win clients’ confidence by doing more than just educating. I try to do more listening than talking, and more asking than telling. If the conversation starts getting too emotionally difficult for a client, I slow down, back up, and deal with the issue from an economic perspective.
Sharing Personal Experience
If I feel that we’ve made a strong connection — and it’s appropriate and relevant — I sometimes share my own story with clients. My mom had Alzheimer ’s disease and I was her primary caregiver. I was also her health care proxy and power of attorney.
I was the designated decision-maker, but whenever I had to make important choices on my mom’s behalf, I called my siblings and said, “This is Mom’s medical situation right now. This is what the doctors are asking me. What do you think?”
Based on my experience, one of the most important suggestions I offer my clients is to be clear with those closest to them — regardless of who’s included in their family group — about what will be most important at the end of their lives. (The health care proxy is not the only person who needs this information.) I recently urged a client to follow this advice.
Learning from Family Strife
A gay married couple asked me for help with their estate planning. One of them was in their 50s, the other was 60. They’re both working to try to retire as soon as possible. We were trying to ensure financial solvency in their later years, so we talked about what might happen if one of them was disabled or needed a nursing home. The woman in her 50s shared that her mother had passed the year before. She talked to me through tears about how painful the whole process was because there had been a struggle for control with a sibling. They got through it, but the situation created lingering friction in her family.
I asked her, “Do you think your sister might cause similar problems if something [life-threatening] happened to you? What should your wife do in that circumstance?”
“I need to have a conversation with my sister and I need to start it now,” my client replied.
She acknowledged that the discussion might be lengthy and difficult, but she wanted to be clear about her wishes. She started crying again, but the second time it was from relief. She said, “If something were to happen to me, I want my spouse to be able to grieve and do what she needs to do. I don’t want her to have to deal with my sister giving her a hard time.”
People either rise to their best or stoop to their worst when someone is dying. This is why it’s so important to do all you can to prevent misunderstandings, miscommunications, and assumptions about your end-of-life care wishes. Making end-of-life discussions a normal part of financial planning is one way to do this.
For more information on how to begin the conversation, download our Conversation Starter Kit.