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Helping clients and families talk opens opportunities

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Besides handling larger, more complex assets, another significant part to maintaining a successful relationship with clients is to interact with family members.

Advisers have opportunities to work with clients and their relatives on several of the family's needs, including legacy planning, setting-up trust funds and inheritance allocations. However, not all family members are in agreement when it comes to a client's wealth.

A recent Merrill Lynch study of 609 high-net-worth households found stark differences in values between different generations of family members on the topic of wealth. The study, Reframing Wealth in Your Family, found that 69% of older respondents viewed monetary gifts as an expression of love. Only half of millennials said they felt the same way.

According to the study, older generations of family members see discussions about wealth as a chance to gain clarity and empower decision makers more than their off-springs.

However, millennials take the opposite view and were more likely to say that starting these conversations pushes the boundaries of disrespect. The differences stem from a breakdown in communication or the lack of it between family members, according to researchers who oversaw the study.

Advisers, however, could be the answer to this problem by facilitating communications between clients and their families, says Michael Liersch, Merrill Lynch Wealth Management's head of behavioral finance and goals-based consulting, and author of the study.

A separate study conducted by Morgan Stanley found that advisers do have an impact on family wealth decision making, with 50% of respondents describing advisers as having a strong influence and 39% some influence.

Advisers may want to suggest clients hold regular family meetings and develop family committees as a communications building exercise, according to the Morgan Stanley study. The report suggests the family committee model is preferred for family governance decisions, philanthropy choices and family wealth education selections.

But this too comes with complexity.

"I had a client who hated attending family meetings," explains Stacy Allred, Merrill Lynch's Strategic Wealth Advisory Group's managing director. "She hated how her father was dictating everything and telling her what to do."

This is where an adviser can play a crucial role in fostering communication between clients and their families. But how do you bridge such a sensitive and personal topic with clients?

Having an open and non-judgmental conversation with clients is one method, says Liersch of Merrill Lynch.

Older generation clients prefer dividing estates equally among family members, while millennials place more importance on what the financial needs are among the members, according to the Merrill Lynch study. Liersch suggests that advisers compare the tradeoffs of both and offer examples of each, backed by data.

"Many affluent clients are very data driven," Liersch says. "Presenting them with data and studies on this might help get them to better understand the situation."

Advisers may want to probe their clients with questions that help them determine their financial goals and wealth allocations, all the while keeping them and their family members comfortable and confident. Speaking to individual relatives also helps the process of understanding family dynamics.

Liersch recommends the following five strategies advisers can use to improve family communications.

Step 1: Add purpose. Ask how clients view the primary purpose of their wealth, and suggest they share the information with their family members
Step 2: Discuss values. Ask what ways clients will use their wealth to reflect their values.
Step 3: Establish accountability. Ask how clients plan to hold themselves accountable. Some families feel the need for regular meetings and welcome feedback.
Step 4: Show leadership. Who takes on the leadership role in your client's family? Most families prefer to let the wealth creator take the lead, but sometimes advisers can be the designated leader.
Step 5: Build empowerment. Learn how the clients and their relatives collaborate to make a positive impact on the family and/or community.
These approaches can give advisers the structure to help clients start a dialogue that's non-judgmental and may serve as a catalyst to strengthen the communications they have within the family.

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