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That Final Question Could Reveal Everything

By R.A. Monroe March 25, 2016

This week we interviewed Heather Castle, founder of Castle Wealth Advisors, an independent financial planning firm based in Los Angeles. Castle recalls how asking one small question transformed the planning process for a client couple.

About five years ago, I had an initial meeting with a new client couple in their early 40s. They had already filled out all their intake paperwork and we spent that first meeting going over it and sketching out a financial plan for them.

Everything was going smoothly.

But then, in the final moments of the meeting, I asked a question that caused me to reevaluate everything we’d been talking about so far.

The question was a simple one: “Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you think I should know, that may or may not be relevant to the planning process?”

As soon as the question was out of my mouth, I saw the couple exchange a glance.

“We’re not sure if this is important or not,” the wife said, “but one of our children has special needs.”

I was immediately grateful I had raised the question. I asked the couple if they had set up a special needs trust for their child and they said they had not – no one had ever even told them that it was something they should consider.

With this new knowledge, I went back and reconsidered their estate plan. I referred them to an attorney who specializes in working with families with special needs members in order to set up the trust.

Heather Castle

We also had to go back and review the beneficiary designations on their 401(k), life insurance and IRAs so they listed the trust instead of the child himself. I also recommended they reach out to all the other family members – grandparents, aunts and uncles – who might be leaving an inheritance to the children, in order to let them know they should name the trust (and not the special needs child) in their own estate plans.

The clients were so grateful we had brought all these issues to their attention.

Their answer to that one question had a huge impact on the planning we did with them. If I hadn’t asked, I imagine that their son’s special needs would have come up at some point, but it might have been much farther down the road. And if something had happened to them in the meantime, it could’ve caused all sorts of unfortunate issues for the family.

It’s so easy for advisors to go on autopilot and just follow the agenda they’ve set in advance.

You just look at the forms the client has submitted and assume that everything relevant is on there. But ever since my experience with this couple I’ve made a point to leave a few minutes at the end of the meeting to ask an open-ended question, just in case there’s something that they haven’t yet brought up.

You also have to make sure you leave enough time – five or 10 minutes is usually enough – to begin a discussion; it doesn’t work if you ask the question as the client is ready to walk out the door.

A lot of times clients will say that we’ve covered it all. Other times, they’ll tell me something that isn’t really relevant to the planning process.

But it’s those times when they reveal something big that makes me so grateful that this small question is a part of my planning process.