End-of-Life Conversations (Probably) Won’t End in Tears

Financial advisors tend to avoid end-of-life (EOL) conversations with their clients, despite the many benefits of doing so. Often, advisors avoid these conversations because they fear that EOL discussions can only end in tears. After all, nobody wants to be responsible for a family meltdown. 

However, our research shows that advisors can safely put their fears to rest: family meltdowns are almost never triggered by EOL conversations. If anything, family dysfunction is more likely to be worsened by a lack of EOL conversations. 

Here’s the crucial clarification: it’s the fear of family dysfunction that deters people from having EOL conversations rather than actual dysfunction. The dysfunction itself is rare: in one case study, a veteran financial advisor hosted more than 2400 family meetings about estate planning and other EOL topics. 

How many of those 2400 family conversations ended in tears? Exactly three. In other words, this data suggests that the odds of a family meltdown are only about 1 in 800 — and that’s not much higher than the odds that you’ll be struck by lightning in your lifetime (1 in 3000)

It’s Time to Start Talking

In postponing this important topic, clients risk burdening loved ones with painful decisions in the event of an unexpected death or medical emergency. When financial advisors help families engage in conversations about estate planning and their medical wishes, families almost universally become more cohesive, and they are far less likely to face added stress in a crisis. Although financial advisors and clients clearly benefit from these conversations, very few advisors have fully incorporated family conversations into their relationships with clients.

So how can you buck the status quo? When we conducted a nationally representative survey on EOL conversations, as many as 60% of respondents indicated that they’re waiting for somebody else to start a family conversation about these topics. Trusted financial advisors are in an ideal position to broach EOL topics long before the conversation becomes urgent.

Precious final moments with loved ones should not be burdened with the stress of finalizing end-of-life documents or discussing what a family member would have wanted — and financial advisors can bring client relationships to a whole new level by facilitating these conversations.

How can you help your client and their family overcome their own fears of family dysfunction? Let’s take a look.

Opening Strategies for End-of-Life Conversations

First, start small by simply discussing the need to talk about end-of-life matters with family. Explain that delaying these conversations can cause harm to clients (who may not get their EOL wishes fulfilled) and their families (by adding unnecessary stress to a crisis).

Walk your client through their options to start the conversation. Rather than springing the conversation on everyone during Thanksgiving dinner, suggest scheduling a family meeting to broach the subject.

Keep the family meetings short. Professional facilitators universally agree that the most effective family meetings are generally under an hour.

Help your client choose one “bite-sized” topic to tackle first. Choose something straightforward, like selecting a medical power of attorney or discussing the “Five Wishes” form.

Finally: keep going! Once your clients get the ball rolling, encourage them to work through more topics, with their families involved every step of the way.

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