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Keeping it Together When a Client is Terminally Ill

January 27, 2017

This time we hear from Kaleb Robuck, a financial advisor at Red Oak, Iowa-based Miller Financial Group. He recalls the first time he had to handle business with a terminally ill client.

I’m relatively new to the financial planning profession and I feel as though I learn important lessons every day. Before I began my current position I was working as an intern with another firm. I sat in with senior advisors and watched how they handled all sorts of complex situations; it was a fantastic learning experience. Then one day I was given an assignment that provided me with my first real taste of the challenges advisors face every day.

My task was to deliver a packet of important papers to one of the firm’s longtime clients. I knew this man had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and was too ill to come into the office.

On the way over to the client’s home I have to admit I was a bit nervous. I didn’t have a personal relationship with these people and I was about to walk into what was surely a very emotional situation. I had to make sure the paperwork got handled properly without being insensitive or disruptive during a difficult time. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into.

When I walked in the door, however, I was happy to discover that both the client and his wife were very relaxed; they took pains to make me feel at home. After just a few minutes I felt comfortable speaking frankly about the business we needed to take care of.

During that 90-minute meeting at their kitchen table, I tried to remember the ways I had observed senior advisors deal with grieving clients. I made a point to slow things way down. I’m always careful to listen to clients but in this situation I knew it was particularly important to let him and his wife explain their concerns before I rushed in with a solution.

In retrospect, one thing that helped this situation go smoothly was the fact that I had done a lot of advance preparation. Not only did I have all the necessary disclosures and paperwork on hand, I had also come up with a to-do list that helped me stay on track.

Kaleb Robuck

If you’re proactive and have a system in place you can take the time to chat with the family members without worrying that you’re going to neglect a crucial task.

By the end of that meeting I had taken care of everything I needed to — and my nerves had completely vanished.

Encouraging people to make decisions and take action when they’re also facing an end-of-life situation is definitely one of the most difficult situations an advisor can find themselves in. I’ve learned there are ways you can show what you mean without having to express it in so many words. I’ll point out that if no decision gets made then no decision is their decision. I also stress that my job is to fulfill their wishes. In my experience, people appreciate honesty. After all, we all know what the situation is; there’s no need to pretend it isn’t happening.

While it’s always important to communicate clearly, it’s especially true in high-stress, emotional situations like these. You need to speak very clearly, particularly if you’re working with older folks, and confirm and double-confirm that they understand what needs to happen.

Finally, while it’s important to be courteous and to build rapport with the client and their family, it’s also crucial to remember your purpose. It’s easy to get caught up in conversation, particularly when you’re in a client’s home environment. Doing advance preparation can help you speak confidently about why you’re there and can help you stay focused even if the conversation wanders.