How to Help a Grieving Client

Emily Fox, Wealth Management Academy Director
February 21, 2019

Clients often share information with financial advisors that they’ve never shared with anyone else. Finances are intensely personal by nature and are frequently affected by other profoundly personal life events, such as the death of a parent or other loved ones.

This places financial advisors in an incredibly important position of guiding clients (or the loved ones of clients) through times where emotions are running high, yet the need for making the right decisions for the future is critical.

What do financial advisors need to know in order to best aide grieving clients? How can financial advisors compassionately help clients deal with their emotions while making sound decisions?

Key Considerations

There are several things to remember as you work with grieving clients.

Stages of Grief: First, they are going through the five stages of grief. As established by David Kessler and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Grieving clients may move through and among these stages as you’re working with them, affecting their ability to respond to and engage with you. Understanding the stages of grief and how they may manifest will help you respond to their needs each time you interact.

More than Money: It’s also important to remember that the money or estate they’re inheriting likely represents more than money to the recipient – It represents the loved ones lost. Making plans or changing how the money may be used or invested can sometimes trigger deep emotions and even shift the client within the different stages of grief.

Time to Process: The client or clients may need additional time to think and process before making any decisions. This can sometimes be interpreted as being unsure of the financial advisor’s recommendations and guidance, but that’s likely not the case – they’re just questioning everything. They may be questioning how end of life decisions were handled and making decisions about the estate so soon may be just as difficult as those decisions. Clients can also remain wrapped up in their emotions and have questions about their own decision-making abilities.

Living Up to Expectations: The clients may also be wary of not living up to perceived expectations of the lost family members. While it may seem counter-intuitive, this may be even more frequently the case for those with modest estates. Consider the feelings of “Mom and Dad worked so hard for what they had. I can’t mess this up.”

Financial Literacy and Sales Pressure: Depending on your previous relationship with the clients, they may have little prior education and knowledge about the financial instruments involved in the estate. They may be under pressure from other companies or advisors to make decisions quickly. If some or all of the estate had been handled by other advisors, they may be receiving calls and emails to please return forms with decisions or to make radical changes and new investments. It’s likely they may not fully understand the choices being presented and the implications (tax and otherwise) of the various options.

Be a Trusted Source: Finally, and most importantly, remember they trust you. That is why they are working with you. They trust you to give them the education they need to make these difficult decisions, to help them not make mistakes with the legacy of their loved ones, and to keep their best interests in mind. 

The biggest gift you can give these clients is the gift of time. If the situation allows them to wait on some decisions, let them know they have time. It will allow them to work through the stages of grief, get to a place where they can truly absorb the education they need and finally calmly explore the best options for their family. You are the calm in the storm of pressure battering them.

Grieving clients can be vulnerable, confused, inundated with information they may not understand, and scared of making horrible decisions that might not honor the family legacy.  They trust you. The intangible value you provide – the understanding, the calm, the time others may be saying they don’t have – these things comprise the real value you offer which nobody else can.

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