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After being asked for advice on everything from illegitimate children and diamond smuggling to how to provide a discreet inheritance to someone’s mistress, it’s fair to say nothing surprises Naoshad Pochkhanawala anymore.
It’s all part of the nature of the business, says Mr. Pochkhanawala, a chartered life underwriter and financial planner at Amiko Benefits Inc. in Markham, Ont., who once received a call from a particularly terrified husband who didn’t want his wife finding out about his speeding tickets.
“Many of our major decisions and life transitions are intertwined with our finances, so I have an intimate knowledge of the details of my clients’ lives and businesses,” he says.
“They have called me for guidance on navigating anxiety, depression and burnout, when they are facing actions from disciplinary bodies or simply looking to gain clarity.”
As money and a person’s relationship to it are fundamental to who they are, financial planning is really a form of life coaching, he says.
But as financial advisors are increasingly being turned to for guidance through devastating life events, where should they draw the line?
For Elke Rubach, principal at Rubach Wealth Holistic Family Advisors in Toronto, the key lies in remaining acutely aware of her limitations as a financial professional.
“When we onboard clients, we do so with the intent of helping them look at their finances in a holistic manner,” says Ms. Rubach.
“It also includes a conversation about their non-financial life as we want to know about them and what’s important to them – the good, the bad, their fears and goals.”
In these conversations, Ms. Rubach will draw from her personal experience and share examples of her own life challenges to showcase that her clients are not alone. She will also refer out to other professionals when appropriate, tapping into an extensive list of vetted contacts that she has collected in her 12 years of business.
“The obvious ones are lawyers, accountants, and specific asset managers, but also therapists, life coaches, travel agents, dog walkers, and doulas,” says Ms. Rubach.
“We work with busy professionals who have everything but time – and they drive themselves crazy trying to do it all.”
In discussions about money, particularly when multiple family members are involved, painful history and broken relationships stemming from childhood issues often come to the surface.
“While we cannot help them work on those issues from a psychologist/therapist point of view, because we’re not licensed for that, we can show them the impact those issues have on their plans and future financial projections,” she says. “As part of our process, we try and understand the family values and what is important to them.”
How to set the expectations
In general, the more topics an advisor agrees to engage on with clients, the more cautious they need to be about maintaining a strong boundary of what they are actually licensed to discuss, says Melissa C. Harrell, financial planner at McRae Wealth Management in Winnipeg.
“Hosting a periodic event for clients where a professional can comment on issues that make crossroads with financial planning is tremendously valuable,” she says.
“The best we can do as comprehensive financial planners and advisors is to make clients aware of all the services we can provide, then ask what services they would like to engage in with us.”
Ms. Harrell says designated professionals should give their clients an engagement letter at the start of the relationship, in addition to having a discussion during their initial meeting to outline the breadth and depth of scope they intend to work on with them.
Currently, she is working on designing a binder for clients with a section for each part of their financial needs, which “helps them know what they can come to me for and keeps them organized,” she says.
As financial circumstances are a point of vulnerability for most people, clients need to know when advisors are speaking to them as financial professionals versus giving them personal advice, says Jackie Porter, certified financial planner and founder of Team Jackie Porter at Carte Wealth Management in Mississauga.
“Often, I will say something like, “You may want to take this with a grain of salt as I am not qualified to give you advice, so take my comments in the spirit they are intended – which is to help in case it can,’” says Ms. Porter.
She also pays careful attention to clients’ physical cues, such as whether they lose eye contact or get defensive.
“If they clam up when advice is offered, it’s a sign that I may have overstepped my boundaries and, in that case, I apologize if any offense was taken,” says Ms. Porter.
“Relationships with clients are built on trust and I need to ensure they can trust me to be respectful of their boundaries.”
Occasionally, Mr. Pochkhanawala will offer a calming anchor to a client who is visibly distressed or share some basic visualization techniques.
“I might try to make them laugh. None of this is ‘life coaching’ per se, it’s just being a decent human,” he says.
“I am not a professional in these fields and take pains to emphasize that, but the nature of our job puts us in places where we must do the best we can to help others.”
On one particularly memorable occasion, Ms. Rubach stored bear meat in her freezer for a client who was travelling to the Bahamas, so that it wouldn’t go bad until his return to Canada.
In this instance, Ms. Rubach found it quite easy to draw a firm line.
“They begged me to try it. I just couldn’t. Personally, I found it repulsive but since the client needed help, we were there for them,” she says.
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