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How Accountants Can Help Aging Decision-Makers

Jun 11th 2015
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“Take me to your leader.”

Even back in 1953, cartoon aliens visiting Earth wanted to deal with the decision-maker. Terrestrial accountants are no different. In client relationships, we usually focus on one person who calls the shots. But when that person dies, what happens to his or her spouse?

Seniors, also called the Silent Generation, are typically between 70 and 90 years old. They may have experienced the Great Depression firsthand. If not, their parents did. They came of age at a time when people fit into roles. One person typically earned and managed the money, while the other ran the household and raised the children. This worked well until they got older and someone got sick.

“Who is going to look after my spouse when I’m gone?” It’s a major issue faced by aging decision-makers. Often, they obsess about it and talk themselves into unrealistic solutions: “My spouse will remarry,” or “The kids will take care of him,” or “She’ll die first.”

Often, they look to their collection of advisors for help. Financial advisors and lawyers can play a role, yet their accountant is uniquely positioned to help. The challenge is getting them to talk about their dilemma.

Several barriers must be overcome if you choose to have this discussion. The decision-maker might assume his spouse is only interested in spending money or that she has no concept of bill paying or budgeting. It’s easy to stereotype and get things wrong. If she runs the household, shops for groceries, and buys holiday presents, she understands budgeting. Ditto if she volunteers in the community and helps organize charity galas. They aren’t financial neophytes.

The decision-maker’s supposed lack of interest in money might come from a fear there’s less of it around than he thought. This can happen when the decision-maker is cheap or challenges every purchase, saying: “Do you think I’m made of money?”

Step one is getting the conversation started. The decision-maker has likely expressed concerns about his or her own mortality. Start by acknowledging that no one lives forever. Is she concerned about how her spouse will handle their finances when she can no longer do it for them?

It’s likely you have hit the nail on the head. Consider three types of finances:

  1. Tax-related. You’ve done them for years. You are glad to continue. Nothing will change.
  2. Investment-related. Do they have a good financial advisor who puts the client’s interest ahead of their own? Is the advisor a financial planner? That might help if budgeting is necessary. Does the advisor offer a fee-only relationship?
  3. Bill paying. Many bills can be transitioned to electronic bill payment. Banks and financial services firms offer it. Life can be simplified.

Ask some tactful questions about the decision-maker’s spouse’s level of comfort with handling money and paying bills. If her spouse has been in the working world, he understands the paycheck concept. It shouldn’t be difficult to consider monthly pension, Social Security, and annuity payments as elements of his new monthly paycheck. This can be supplemented by periodic transfers from the couple’s investment portfolio.

What about emergencies? Sometimes roofs need repair or they need a new car. A home equity line of credit or borrowing power on a segment of their securities account can provide access in those emergencies. Ideally, the client would need to take an extra step, like using a separate checkbook or calling an individual to initiate the transfer of funds.

Your client will get the greatest degree of comfort if he knows someone trustworthy will be advising his spouse. Ask if he has someone in mind. It might be his financial advisor or attorney – or it might be you. You are well-positioned to help.

Most important is the surviving spouse’s mental well-being. Couples who sincerely loved each other over long periods often go into mourning afterward. Queen Victoria set the record, mourning the death of Prince Albert. He died in 1861. She mourned his death until her own death 40 years later in 1901.

People who lose their spouse can be vulnerable. They can often be easily influenced. They can withdraw from their day-to-day responsibilities. To head off some of those risks, it’s important that their key advisors be collectively in touch in the early days of their bereavement and provide a level of confidence they will be financially secure. The financial advisor/planner and attorney each have a role to play. You might take the lead.

Staying in touch and, if possible, monitoring their accounts for unusual activity might be the best way you can respect the legacy of your decision-making client.

About the author:
Bryce Sanders is president of Perceptive Business Solutions Inc. in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He provides HNW client acquisition training for the financial services industry. His book "Captivating the Wealthy Investor" can be found on


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