Editor’s Note: There has been a lot of discussion around the handling of digital assets – which include money in many cases, but often even more valuable items that can be very difficult to access or acquire after a life event such as the loss of a family member. While the process can be complex and require legal intervention, you can start with some fundamental steps. Ms. Daneman speaks from personal experience when she outlines just how to get started planning for digital asset transfer.
I recently wrote about using social media to connect with your clients’ family members as a way to encourage and plan for inter-generational asset transfers. Having an existing relationship and line of communication to family members is critical for continuing to be that family’s trusted advisor after a client passes away. As I mentioned in the post, without an established trusted relationship in place, it’s very likely that beneficiaries will take their inherited assets elsewhere, even though you’ve been the advisor on those accounts for years and have the historical reference to be the best steward of those investments.
Establishing the family bond requires focusing on the entire household by developing a relationship with each individual family member. The first and most direct way to initiate those relationships is to invite your client and their family to have a meeting in your office. Make it simple for them get the conversation going. Invite their estate planning attorney and accountant, who you might be networking with already. Use this meeting to focus on getting to know family members, not on acquiring their assets.
Today, social media has become one of the most common tools for maintaining ongoing relationships and keeping up-to-date with their life events, particularly when they live in other locations. Once you’ve met with family members in person, ask if you may connect on social media networks like LinkedIn, so they can get to know you and learn about you. Connecting with your client’s family members online not only gives you the opportunity to establish an ongoing personal relationship, but it also opens the door for you to share your expert knowledge and gain their trust from a financial perspective. Include content on estate planning, tax issues and final wishes in your regular postings.
I recently experienced first-hand just how important these family conversations and relationships are when my mother passed away. Now that I’m handling my parents’ estate, I’m extremely grateful that we had these financial discussions over the past 15 years in preparation for what I’m currently facing.
Since my father passed away first, I worked closely with my mother to be sure that the trust and estate were in good shape. I met with her attorney, financial advisor, bank manager and accountant. I even know which real estate agent she preferred me to use. Knowing all of them personally has been extremely helpful in transitioning control of her assets over to me, especially since I’m handling her affairs from another state.
My baseline suggestion to advisors is to encourage clients to have these important conversations with family about finances and final preparations. Make lists of last wishes, financial accounts, credit cards, inventory of valuable possessions and how property will be distributed within the family. The list of things to inventory, such as details of funeral and memorial plans, may be uncomfortable to discuss, but open communication makes all of these things so much easier to execute and less of a burden for survivors.
Another area that advisors can help with—which families rarely consider—is creating a list of digital assets, such as online brokerage accounts, online photo albums and social media accounts, which are all considered property and can be tricky to transition. From a digital perspective, the previously mentioned inventory list should include account numbers, user names and passwords. This list will need to be updated annually at the least, but ideally any time a new digital account is created or password is changed. These digital assets need to be closed along with credit cards and bank accounts. Each platform has it’s own process of closing accounts, so an executor of digital assets will need to be named as well.
Your clients want to know that their families and loved ones will be taken care of when they are no longer present. If we hadn’t had trusted relationships with experts who have experience with these types of situations, such as my mother’s financial advisor, I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to manage all that was required during a time when our family was grieving a significant loss.
Even though the setting may have changed from living room meetings to online discussions, financial advisors are still expected to make an effort to get to know clients and develop a trusted relationship, often to the point of being considered a member of the extended family. As mentioned, social media is one highly effective way to connect with your client’s family members, siblings and children, to have an ongoing communication that will establish your credibility, empathy and reputation before a life-changing event happens. Waiting until assets are in motion and trying to manufacture a relationship after a client passes away is opportunistic and simply does not work. You are in a position to, tastefully, help your clients and their families feel comforted and avoid added frustration during a time when they should be mourning and celebrating the life of someone close to them.