What to Do When Clients and Friends Suffer a Loss During COVID-19

By now, it is likely many of you know someone, perhaps even close to you, that has contracted the virus. If they died from it or even from other causes, how can accountants help on a personal and professional level at this time?

May 1st 2020
President Perceptive Business Solutions Inc.
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One big issue right now is that social distancing has put funerals and memorial services out of the picture. You can’t visit a client’s family and console them.

This becomes an issue both personal and professional. Here’s some ways you, as the family accountant, can help.

The Professional Issue

Some people think of accountants as people who file tax returns. In many situations, they are trusted family advisors on all financial matters. Although you might not advise them on investments, you may be qualified and licensed in this area as you understand budgeting and debt management better than most people.

At a time of loss, there’s a strong tendency not to want to appear predatory. Regardless of whether it’s a client or a friend without a business relationship, we tend to hold off and that’s not always the best idea.

I’m reminded of the story of the financial advisor who found himself in a similar situation. An older friend died and the spouse had a lot of paperwork in front of them. The advisor, wanting to be respectful, kept their distance.

Over the next few months, the relationship cooled and the advisor finally asked why. The answer was: “I suffered a loss. I had a huge number of financial issues to navigate and you were in a position to help, but you didn’t offer.” The spouse was left to work their way through it on their own.

The prudent solution may be to express sorrow on the death of their loved one and explain you know there will be lots of paperwork ahead and financial issues to address. You’ve helped other people in similar situations, so you are ready to help them too. If they want help now or in the future, they only need to ask but they need to know you’re there too.

Here are some areas where you can help:

1. Death certificates.  By contacting the funeral home, they will usually fill out the necessary paperwork, file it with the local authorities and provides copies for the survivors.

2. Insurance policies. They need to be found. The insurance company needs to be notified. If they cannot find the paperwork, they should have policy numbers on their premium statements.

3. Changing titles on joint accounts. JTWROS (Joint Tenants with Right of Survivorship) usually makes this straightforward with banks and financial services firms. 

4. Social Security and pension benefits. Different benefit plans have different features. There’s often a survivor benefit in the event the plan holder dies. The people sending those monthly checks need to be notified.

5. Household budgeting. In some families, one person pays all the bills. They also “know where the money is.” Your friend or client might need help in understanding monthly expenses and how they get paid, or you could oversee bill-pay on their behalf.

6. Estate planning. It doesn’t sound like an immediate need because assets often transfer between spouses unimpeded, but it could be if specific plans are not in place. Things change once one party dies and the survivor has designated heirs. People want to minimize tax liability and this takes planning. You may have experience in this area.

The Personal Issue

When a life lost is not remembered, it seems they made no impact. In normal times, you would attend the memorial service and visit the family at home and pay respects. Even within the stay-at-home restrictions, you should still show respect, so you can:

1. Call. You can’t be there, but at least they can hear your voice. They might receive many calls, but they all matter and checking in is always a good thing.

2. Send a card. You likely keep a supply, but of not, buy one at the grocery or even online. There are many services that do this and let you personalize a physical card to mail. 

3.  Send flowers. Your local florist is likely closed since it’s a non-essential business. There are online services that will ship flowers or plants.

4. Delivering food. This depends on how you feel about contactless delivery. You might bake a cake or casserole, package it up, drive it over or even pick up some food at the grocery and drop it off at their homes. You can call to alert them of their “package” after driving away. Others might not want to venture outside, so you could order online from a local restaurant that has a food delivery service.

Final Thoughts

Accountants are in a unique position because they are fiduciaries and they are only selling their time and expertise. They are also, quite often, trusted family friends. Even during the pandemic, when people are social distancing, you need to stay closely involved.

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