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How to Help Clients Who Don't Know What They Want

November 3, 2017

This time we hear from Chad Chase, principal and CEO of Manhattan, Kan.-based CGN Advisors. He recounts how taking things slow helped him figure out how to best meet the financial and emotional needs of a particularly tricky client.

About seven years ago I took on a client who had lost two husbands by the time she was 60. Both had left her considerable assets and she had accumulated a net worth in the neighborhood of $5 million.

The problem was she had no idea what to do with her wealth. She found it hard to spend money, especially on herself, and ended up spending just enough to cover her basic needs. She never splurged on vacations, fancy cars or anything else she considered a luxury, even though she could afford it. She lived modestly; meanwhile, her assets continued to grow.

When I’d encountered clients with similar attitudes in the past, our focus had been on figuring out the best strategies to pass on their wealth to children or other family members. But this client had no children from either marriage and her parents and only sibling had passed away. She had two nieces but they were both leading successful lives of their own and she didn’t know them well. Leaving assets for family members wasn’t an option for her.

I knew at some point I’d have to help this client figure out how to administer her estate but even after meeting with her a few times I didn’t see an obvious solution.

So I waited.

My assistant and I met with her regularly, sometimes to talk financial strategy but sometimes just to talk about our lives. In those first few years she was still mourning the death of her second husband and we tried to be there for her as she went through that process.

We started getting to know her pretty well, to the point where we were becoming friends. When she decided to move into a new house, my assistant visited properties with her. When it came time to buy a new car, we talked through not only the various financial scenarios but also the features of the cars themselves.

Over time, as this client gained trust in us, she started opening up to us about her desires and fears. She told us she’d always wanted children and regretted never having any. I noticed she always asked about my children and the children of my colleagues. She took a real interest in them. She’d been a teacher for many years and I sensed she had a buried passion for educating and supporting youth.

Chad Chase

I brought up the possibility of donating to charities focused on education. She liked the idea of helping children but she was anxious about what kind of donation to make. She spent months vetting organizations only to decide they weren't right for her. She really wanted the gift to be personally meaningful and she wanted to retain control over how it was spent.

Finally my colleagues and I hit on a solution: a donor-advised fund. She could donate assets and receive a charitable deduction while maintaining control over how much money went into the fund, when contributions were made, and which specific charities benefited from those funds. I explained the idea to my client and she loved it.

She decided to focus on arts education for children and we talked through various donation scenarios. Right now, we’re working with her to make a gift to a local arts center that runs a children’s music program. It took seven years of developing a relationship and building trust for us to get to this point. Over that period I came to understand not only what interested her but what motivated her. That’s what allowed us to find the right financial solution.

When clients know exactly what they want, it’s just a matter of fine-tuning a strategy to maximize financial benefits. But some clients might not have clear goals. In these cases I’ve learned that being patient and getting to know each other helps in developing a strategy that feels right for the client.