There are times – particularly during the estate-planning process – when it makes sense for financial advisors to get multiple generations of a family together in one room. But family conversations about money can get tense, so advisors need strategies to keep meetings positive and productive.
To start, have an agenda for each family meeting, but be prepared to adjust it to incorporate new topics as they come up, says Jeanette Brox, senior financial consultant at IG Wealth Management in Toronto.
“Go in with an open mind,” she says. “Listen very carefully and look for the family dynamics. … There are a lot of signals that you can get from body language.”
Ms. Brox always begins family meetings by asking what’s new for them. It’s an open-ended question that sets a receptive tone and invites participation.
Joy O’Donnell, founder and president of Grand Financial Planning in Brantford, Ont., walks into family meetings with a clear understanding of the commonalities or crossover points in the financial plans of each generation. She generally finds it’s best to meet with two generations at a time: senior parents and their middle-aged children, who may be helping their parents with finances, or middle-aged parents and their young adult children, who may still need guidance from their parents.
“To get grandparents and grandchildren together? There’s not a lot of crossover in those cases. There’s a generation in between,” she says. “It’s a hop, skip and a jump to get there.”
Ms. O’Donnell suggests limiting the number of attendees as having more people at the table creates more opportunities for conflict. That said, no matter how many people are there, she warns that advisors should “expect the unexpected.”
When tensions rise, it helps if an advisor has had in-depth conversations with clients about the reasons why they made certain decisions for their financial or estate plans, suggests Eli Kirchmaier, co-founder and certified financial planner at Up Financial Inc., under the Portfolio Strategies Corp. umbrella in Calgary. Keep in mind, he says, that “fair isn’t equal and equal isn’t fair” and be ready to help clients explain the rationale for their decisions clearly.
“Our role is [to be] the mediator,” Mr. Kirchmaier explains. “It’s not to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do, or to tell people how they should or shouldn’t feel. It’s more just to make sure that everybody has the ability to communicate openly with one another and to share how they feel and, ultimately, to find a [path forward that helps] the client achieve what it is they want to accomplish.”
That approach is one Ms. Brox follows as well. She says she has to “appear impartial, especially if I have everybody as a client – and lots of times I do. So, I explain that my role in all of this is to raise the issues – and let’s hash it out.”
However, she points out that when push comes to shove, “Blood is thicker than water, so if you overstep or become heavy-handed, you run the risk of alienating [clients] and losing the account.”
For Ms. O’Donnell, the key is not to let meetings grind to a halt in the face of negative feelings.
“As soon as you start seeing emotion in the discussion, try to move quickly past it,” she says. “Address it if you can, [but] if there’s a sticky issue, take it offline and say, ‘Okay, we’ll come back to that,’ or ‘I’ll speak to you separately by phone,’ or ‘We’ll figure that out.’ But move on … Otherwise, you could get bogged down and never come back to the plan.”
After the family meeting has taken place, Mr. Kirchmaier sends out an e-mail to all attendees recapping everything that was discussed.
“From our perspective, we obviously want to have a paper trail, but [it’s also important] to get it in writing so that it can be referred back to, because people tend to remember certain things and not others,” he says.
Mr. Kirchmaier also follows up with a phone call to the family members who are his clients. He makes sure they’re comfortable with how the meeting went and discusses any adjustments they may want to make to their plan as a result of the issues that were raised.
Whatever the emotional temperature may have been in the meeting, Ms. Brox says, “I try to keep my comments and debriefing as neutral as possible.”
She’s also careful not to play favourites when it comes to post-meeting conversations. “I’ve had clients call me up and say, ‘Hey, you didn’t tell me that you talked to so and so,’” she says.
For that reasons, Ms. Brox feels it’s better to say everything in the meeting itself, in front of everybody, to promote openness and transparency.
Despite the potential pitfalls, hosting a family meeting can encourage family members to work toward joint goals and introduce advisors to new generations of clients. It can also help advisors better understand what makes a family tick and even identify issues such as elder abuse, Ms. O’Donnell says.
“The biggest benefit is just making sure that everyone is on the same page because when there are no surprises, that’s what keeps the family together through [intergenerational wealth] transitions,” Mr. Kirchmaier says. “It’s not even a question of should we be meeting with the next generation. We always do because it’s just prudent planning.”