10 tips for discussing the big inevitable with clients

By Skip Rapp

Executor's Resource

You've helped clients revisit and cut back on living expenses. Now, dust off their estate plan and help them be smart about dying expenses. Failure to plan in advance not only can cause serious sticker shock, but unfulfilled wishes.

Engaging clients now produces a win-win situation. Clients will do something they aren't likely to do on their own. You'll learn information about them that you may not get elsewhere. Done the right way, you'll convert new product and service sales opportunities while at the same time bolstering your advisor-client relationship.

Finding efficient, repeatable ways to coach clients through a difficult topic like this is critical. Maximize your time and involvement by developing a structured, yet customizable routine. Use the following discussion outline with clients to reveal preferences, consider important factors and make tradeoffs.
    1. Talk budget. This may seem strange to your client, but starting here will reveal a baseline for which all subsequent discussions will likely return. You'll get a clear understanding of what recommendations and choices for financial preparation (i.e., insurance, pre-planned funeral arrangements) might be appropriate given your client's response and philosophy.

    2. Cremation or burial? The National Vital Statistics Department reported a 66 percent burial rate and 34 percent cremation rate in 2006. Ask your client about his or her preferred method and discuss the associated costs. Regardless of the option selected, encourage your client to make these wishes known to his or her future executor or personal representative and family.

    3. Pre-select a funeral home. If there are multiple funeral homes where your client lives, have him or her select one and document that information. Identify the funeral home contact name and phone number. This will be especially helpful if your client prefers to be buried in a town different from his or her current place of residence. Again, encourage your client to discuss these preferences with his or her future executor and family.

    4. Buy a casket and/or urn. This can be one of the most difficult decisions for surviving spouses and children. It will be significantly easier on loved ones if a casket and/or urn is pre-selected and purchased.

    5. Choose a headstone and the engravings, if applicable. There are many choices of headstones and markers and a wide range of costs that accompany each option. Exploring the costs will allow your client to make a choice that matches preference, while still aligning with his or her desired budget.

    6. Write down information to have included in an obituary. We all have meaningful contributions and information we would like people to remember about us. A common misconception is that the executor or personal representative is required to write and submit an obituary as part of his or her role. Set the record straight for your client, and have him or her write down what should be included. In which newspapers should it appear?

    7. Choose the type of service or celebration desired. There are a number of choices today for remembrance, some religious, others not. Regardless, indicating preferences including location of the service, will take the pressure off the future executor and family. Be specific with details. Should last rites be delivered or not? Should there be a visitation? Should there be flowers? Is it important to wait until a special person arrives from a far place?

    8. Select the readings, songs, passages and participants for a funeral service. Many people take great comfort from quotes, passages from the bible, poems, famous or personal writings, and specific songs. Have clients think about what carries special meaning. Next, will pallbearers be needed? If so, who should be asked? Is there a special priest, rabbi, or celebrant that your client wants to deliver the service? A musician to sing or play? Are there people who should specifically not be allowed to attend?

    9. Select any charities or organizations for contributions. Often, family members request donations to a specific organization -- medical facility, hospice or treatment center. But where would your client like to leave a lasting legacy? Their university? In support of animals? To the organization where he or she volunteers? It is possible to be very creative with choices -- and choosing them ahead of time makes the gift that much more meaningful to those who want to contribute.

    10. Leave special notes to loved ones. Saying goodbye is never easy, but even a brief note from your client to the ones they loved will help them during this most difficult time. Make it short and simple, or long and endearing. The key is to leave one last special moment with those whose lives were so touched.
Segmentation of your client base can help you deliver on this type of value consistently over time. Identify your top tier of clients, and then consider focusing on those older than age 50. Schedule separate in-person or phone based meetings, or weave the topic into the end of your next regularly scheduled client appointment.

Be the facilitator and take notes. Have an assistant or junior associate type of the results of the discussion. Deliver a copy to your client, and offer to store the instructions on their behalf, so that you can be the go-to person for family members in the future. There are several online services that cost-effectively serve this purpose. Consider conducting an educational workshop or phone conference for the remainder of your client base. Although delivered on a group basis, you can achieve similar results.

While it's true that the big inevitable is uncertain, one thing is very clear. Do this type of planning and your clients will thank you for your time and effort.