Advice for advisors working with elderly clients, Pt.1: a lawyer and son's perspective

By F Hale Stewart, JD, LLM, CAM, CWM, CTEP

The Law Office of Hale Stewart


Let me begin by saying: There are no rules for dealing with this. That is, there is no firm set of steps to take, no one size fits all plan.

Sometime over the last few years, the baby boomers started to retire. This has created a complex double-edged sword for professionals. While these people are typically in need of legal and financial help, they are also more likely to suffer from some type of dementia. This problem is compounded by the fact that people typically wait until later in their life to perform complex transactions.

As an attorney who practices in the area of asset protection, captive insurance and estate planning, it’s a situation I run into with more and more regularity. In addition, I have a parent who has Alzheimer’s, so I’m familiar with this situation from the other side of the equation.

Below are some tips for dealing with this situation. In my next piece, I’ll discuss my situation in general to give you an idea of the solution that has worked for my family.

Let me begin by saying: There are no rules for dealing with this. That is, there is no firm set of steps to take, no one size fits all plan. For all of us, this is a matter of figuring it out as we go; every fact pattern is a different situation. So, if you’ve run into this situation and you’re looking for a plan, realize there isn’t one.

All professionals who deal with older clients are struggling with this just as much as you are. I realize this offers little comfort, but that’s more or less where we are.

That being said, consider these points:

Don’t be willfully blind.

The older people get, the more likely they are to suffer from some type of dementia. When you meet someone who is 60 years or older, be vigilant.

Assume there's a problem.

And look for reason to prove there isn't a problem. Look for the following signs:
  • repetition of conversation topics
  • inability to understand simple concepts
  • reaching for words they should know
  • overall general confusion. 
You don't have to be a doctor to let common sense inform your observations on these points. If it seems like there is something wrong, there probably is.

Meet older clients multiple times.

People who suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia can have good and bad days. On a good day, everything may seem fine over a short period of time, but problems will present themselves over a longer period of time. On bad days, they have pronounced problems.

Commit to see older prospects at least three times and for longer than a few minutes — meet with them for at least an hour.

In addition, meet with them at different times throughout the day. There is a condition called sundowning, meaning that as the day progresses, people get worse. Meeting someone later in the day can highlight a developing problem.

The older the client, the more conservative the recommendation.

There are a number of cases involving family limited partnerships that were sold to the deceased within years — if not weeks — of death. The various courts overturned the deductions claimed because the partnerships were obviously formed purely for tax reasons. In short, none of these plans should have been sold to the parties in the first place.

The same is true in all fields, be it legal, accounting or financial. Put more directly, don’t sell Grammy junk bonds.

Document everything.

For an older existing client, have an agenda for each meeting and send it to them beforehand, asking them to add their own topics of discussion. Document the meeting as soon as they leave. For prospects, develop a set of detailed questions that not only allow you to comply with “know your customer” rules, but also help to gain some insight into their respective mental condition.

It's important to ask prospects for an explanation of their previous service providers.

For example, if a 65 year old who is financially well off comes into your office and says, “I want to create an estate plan,” begin by asking them if they already have a will written. The point is, a prosperous older person probably has existing relationships with various professionals. Why are they looking to change?

And again, keep the above points to look out for in mind: repetition, confusion, reaching for words etc…

Don't be afraid to turn away business.

Here's a real life example from my practice. An older gentleman (roughly late 60s) wanted to write a new estate plan. We met for lunch and toward the end of the meal, he just seemed a little "off." I scheduled another meeting about one week later in the late afternoon (4 pm) and he was definitely worse off. More importantly, he already had an estate plan drawn by another attorney (who's very good).

After the meeting, I sent him a letter thanking him for considering me, but stating I didn't think he would benefit from my services. My suspicions (completely unproven by the facts) were that he and the other attorney had an argument or falling out and that I'd be walking into a powder keg if I took him on as a client.

Please share your own ideas, experiences and observations in the comments section below so that others may benefit from your experience.