Last month, I had something happen that I never really thought would happen. One of my clients died suddenly.
I’m old enough to remember the days when you’d learn this in a phone call from out of the blue. The person on the other end would say, “I have some bad news….” Strangely, the start of those telephone calls helped me brace myself for what would follow: the report that someone you knew had just died.
This time, however, the news arrived via a text message. Within a split second of opening up the text—all I’d seen before then was the sender’s name—I read the bad news. There was no warning. I was stunned. The woman who died was a friend and a client. Her sudden death was unexpected.
We financial planners often say to our clients, “God forbid something happens to you, but…” Then we tell them what will happen with their estate or legacy after they die. Our message is that, assuming all of the action items on their estate plan have been completed, they can be confident that their wishes will be carried out upon their death.
But what if some items were left incomplete? Clients, for a number of reasons, don’t always act on our advice. We tell ourselves that we’ll remind them at our next meeting to address unfinished business. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll remind them at the meeting after that one. We might even follow up with a phone call asking if they followed through, only to discover that life got in the way.
Upon receiving the text message of her passing, I immediately started thinking about her goals that we were working toward—goals that remained unfulfilled. I started thinking about the action items that were in various phases of being completed. Just a week prior to her death, we were discussing her plans for the remainder of the year. As she shared her intentions, I listened, I advised—and I assumed we had time. I made the mistake of thinking we would always have time to revisit some of the other important action items before, God forbid, something happened to her.
Since her passing, I’ve reflected on how I might have done things differently. Perhaps I could I have been more forceful in getting her to take action. Perhaps simply saying something was important to get done wasn’t enough. Maybe I should have stressed that if she didn’t follow through with my advice and then suddenly died, the impact would cause greater stress for her surviving family.
In the future, I thought, it’s not enough to simply list important action items. Instead, I needed to divide important action items into two categories: (1) do it within a year; and (2) I’m-going-to-take-you-by-the-hand-and-make-sure-you-get-it-done now!
I’ve learned that I need to stress to my clients that planning is important, but taking action is vital. Tomorrow is not promised. So we need to move on urgent matters now and save the merely important matters for tomorrow—if, God willing, tomorrow comes.
Frank Paré is a certified financial planner in private practice in Oakland, California. He and his firm, PF Wealth Management Group, specialize in serving professional women in transition. Frank is currently on the board of the Financial Planning Association and was a recipient of the FPA’s 2011 Heart of Financial Planning award.