Rhonda Latreille remembers the funeral.

“It was Saskatchewan. November, so there was sleet and ice. They were having an interment at the gravesite,” she recalls. The ground was frozen, so this was the ceremony; come spring they’d bury the ashes.

Her childless aunt had died from Alzheimer’s. Final arrangements fell to Latreille, CEO of Age-Friendly Business in Vancouver, which offers the Certified Professional Consultant on Aging designation to advisors and other business owners.

Trouble was, her aunt never told her what she wanted. “I asked everybody,” Latreille says. “They said, ‘Gosh, she wasn’t even lucid the last ten years; I don’t know.’ ” One family member suggested cremation, with the urn buried between her parents. So that’s what Latreille arranged.

As the family stood grieving and shivering in the cold, “A distant cousin came up and said, ‘She wanted to be buried.’ You don’t want anyone to feel what I felt in that moment.”

**

As our population ages, baby boomers—your clients—will be deciding on final steps for their parents, and soon enough for themselves.

They’ve entrusted you to plan their lives. Part of that duty is to prepare for their deaths, even if that seems a long way off.

If you have a book of 100 older clients, get ready—it could balloon to 500.

Why? As you help aging and dying clients get their affairs in order, you’ll inevitably meet the children. Many children don’t live in the same city as parents, so you’ll have to juggle travel schedules in addition to family dynamics.

In most cases, the children don’t know you, and could question your advice. Plus, you may be revealing new information—the kids may not realize mom’s spent their inheritance.

Your foremost duty is to the client, regardless of the children’s interests. And if one of those children has Power of Attorney, remind him or her of the duty of care. For example, a child can’t sell dad’s house and use the proceeds to buy himself a house or car.

This extra time can be difficult to justify if you’re working on a commission basis, says a Toronto advisor who specializes in what he calls last-lap planning.

As a result, he works on a fee-for-service basis. To ensure he charges an amount that captures the work he’ll be doing, he finds out the number of family members involved and their concerns.

“I’ve shared all the financial parts of my life,” says Latreille. “It isn’t a leap to feel my advisor’s office is an appropriate place to discuss the next stage.”

Cultural taboos make it easy to ignore these issues. And medical advances are making boomers feel invincible.

But living longer means clients risk incapacitating illnesses that can render them unable to express their wishes. So you need to have conversations about death early and revisit them periodically to help avoid a situation like Latreille’s.

End-of-life planning is “a natural progression from talking about what will happen with financial assets,” says Bruce Cumming, president of Cumming and Cumming Wealth Management in Oakville, Ont. “We have to lead families through this. That’s our job.”

Advisors have to confront their own feelings about death before they can comfortably help clients.

“I was chided by my best friend because I wanted to talk about [end-of-life planning],” says Cumming. “His wife was terminally ill, and they didn’t want to talk about it, because they were convinced she was going to beat it.”

Planning for her death would have saved the family unnecessary expenses and hassle. “If they had retitled the property into his name prior to her death, she could have just signed off,” says Cumming. They didn’t, so “we had to get affidavits. It became much more complicated than it needed to be.”

At minimum, it takes 18 months to close a simple estate. And if people don’t plan ahead, it draws out the process—which can impede healing.

For that reason, Kat Downey, a funeral director and owner of Legacy Matters in Mississauga, Ont., says it’s worth the trouble to educate clients.

“If people plan for [this] eventuality, there’s a huge sense of relief,” she says. Unfortunately, though, most people are still leaving the conversation too late.

Discuss wishes early

If you consider yourself a life planner, ensure clients don’t neglect their deaths.

One Toronto-based advisor makes death planning a mandatory part of the initial client meeting. Since clients must bring financial documents, he takes the opportunity to create a just-in-case file of the information their loved ones will need when they die.

This matter-of-fact approach, he says, makes it a natural—and less scary—part of the process.

Paul Lermitte, a Vancouver-based family business advisor with Assante, broaches end-of-life topics on one of five occasions:

  • when a client turns 65
  • when a client’s children are in their 40s
  • when a client’s parent dies
  • when a client is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness
  • when a client’s spouse dies

If your client is at risk of an early death, start earlier.

“Get clients to tell you about their parents, and to bring them into meetings,” he says. Lermitte also makes sure clients start a just-in-case file, and explains that getting to know their lawyers, accountants, and other professionals will improve the quality of their financial plans.

You also need to ensure clients have an advisor for their entire lives. To provide this, many advisory practices are building teams in which younger advisors can step up to serve clients after the founders retire.

“We need team members who will look after the current and next generations,” says Robert Kelland, a director of wealth management and portfolio manager with ScotiaMcLeod in London, Ont. His practice employs advisors and associates ranging from their 20s to 60s. And in every meeting, a junior associate sits in with the senior advisor.

Periodically, clients nearing retirement ask Kelland, who’s in his early fifties, how much longer he’ll be around. “I see myself working another 15 years, but my team includes people 25 years younger than I am, who are equally qualified and know our clients and their children,” he says.

Improve the end

Advisors know to bring up wills and powers of attorney, but most stop there. That leaves two important topics untouched: Advanced Care Directives (or living wills) and prepaid funerals.

To keep the conversation going, say, “We’ve got your will in order, which deals with all of your physical assets. There’s [also] advanced directives, which deal with the quality of your life near the end,” suggests Latreille. “These will be difficult questions, but knowing the answers would be helpful to your family.”

Begin with theoretical questions. “Ask your client to describe a good death. Then say, ‘For that to happen, this is what we need to do.’ ”

Downey agrees. “Plant the seeds. You can say, ‘The next time we get together, we’re talking about this.’ ”

Advisors won’t have all the answers (see “Who Can Help,” this page). “Just be that safe place where clients can find the phone numbers,” says Latreille. “Refer clients for the professional expertise they need.”

Advisors who provide this level of care are more likely to hold on to both the survivor and the estate assets.

“Whether the beneficiaries or children are local or not, we’re surprised at the number who remain with us because of our service,” says Kelland.

But all of that is secondary to the duty to clients.

“When a client has passed away and I wasn’t involved,” says Cumming, “I know I’ve really failed.”