No More Death Anxiety: How Financial Advisors Can Discuss Mortality

Experienced financial advisors already know that communication is key. It isn’t enough just to deliver advice to clients; you need to deliver good advice artfully. 

That’s a lot trickier than it may sound. Each client requires a different approach if you want to make them as comfortable as possible. Even if you know the best investment that a client should make, you sometimes need to wait for the perfect moment to tell them about it. 

But when is the perfect moment to bring up death? That’s a tough question. It’s the subject that requires more tact than any other. Financial advisors’ clients increasingly expect guidance on estate planning and other end-of-life issues. How can you get the process started if you can’t figure out how to broach the topic? 

In this article, we’ll discuss ways that advisors can start conversations about estate planning — without making their clients seize up when they raise the topic of mortality.

Understanding That “Death Anxiety” Is Normal

Whenever you’re discussing any subject that involves mortality, it’s important to understand that fear is normal. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have shown time and time again that humans are biologically hard-wired to avoid discussing anything that reminds them of their own mortality

This is a challenge for financial advisors, as major estate planning topics frequently invoke feelings of death anxiety. For example, you may want to encourage your clients to update their will or trust documents, but clients will often resist taking action on anything that makes them think about kicking the bucket. 

There’s good news, though: there are several ways to help clients get over this roadblock. 

How to Make Clients Comfortable With “Death Conversations”

So how can you make your clients comfortable with estate planning conversations that might provoke fears of mortality? One solution is to increase clients’ comfort with the logistics of estate planning and to help them make measurable progress quickly — even if that progress is small at first.

For starters, you should reassure your client that you will take as much weight off of them as possible. Just telling them that you have all the tools to make things go smoothly can make a huge difference.

You should also aim to make tasks as “bite-sized” as possible. Our internal research suggests that intimidating tasks worsen a clients’ death anxiety. Limiting the scope of the estate planning activities can help mitigate clients’ paralysis.

You can do this by breaking end-of-life planning tasks into small milestones that are easily achieved. Presenting your client with a long list of legal documents that they need to complete will probably overwhelm them. Instead, ask them to identify their Medical Power of Attorney one day, but then have them complete documentation later.

Additionally, don’t immediately start with the most emotionally charged elements of the process whenever you bring up end-of-life planning. Launching these conversations by discussing when clients would want to be removed from life support is (understandably) too much for most people. Stick to less-stressful, logistical tasks at first.

Think about your clients’ personalities and stages of life when choosing logistical assignments to start off with. Have them begin with documentation tasks that feel natural to them. For example, our research indicates that older clients are likely to avoid discussing financial details with family members, but those same clients are likely to embrace conversations about their medical wishes. Put succinctly: choose a starting point accordingly. 

How to Reach Out to Clients’ Family Members

As you know, truly effective estate planning requires the participation of clients’ family members. And to optimize your value to clients, it’s important to have the entire family on the same page. 

To naturally connect with family members, it’s best to let the estate planning process dictate when to reach out. For instance, when your client chooses their eldest child as the executor of their estate, it would be a great idea to suggest bringing them in for a meeting so that they can develop a deeper understanding of their role.

During these meetings, you should focus on keeping the conversations short and to the point. Research has found that family meetings are more successful when they are limited to about an hour. That’s a good benchmark for financial advisors. Once again, you don’t want to overwhelm the people you’re working with. If the entire family wants to participate in these meetings, that’s great. But it’s equally effective to start the conversation with just one or two family members.

As you meet more of the family and start to develop more relationships, you can slowly make them more active participants in the estate planning process by giving them roles that are relevant to their age and position in the family. Eventually, everyone will be working together, and that’s a massive step towards deepening the family’s trust with each other and with you. 

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