“I really emphasize estate planning up front,” Thomas said. “In my view it is the biggest risk to [a client’s] entire financial situation,” not only because of financial concerns such as potential tax issues but also because of the possibility of causing grief and hassle for the family after a death."
Thomas said the Terri Schiavo case, which occurred in Florida where her firm is based, led many people in that state and beyond to “start really getting serious” about issues such as living wills and health care proxies.
In that high profile case, which lasted from 1998 to 2005, a woman in a vegetative state was the subject of a lawsuit between her husband and her parents over who had the right to make the decision to remove her feeding tube. The case highlighted the importance of having documents that spell out what a person wants to have occur in that situation and designates someone to make any necessary decisions, Thomas said -- all part of the estate planning conversation she has with her clients.
When talking to clients it’s not only important to talk about their goals, but “to listen to their fears as well,” she said. “I take a lot of time to listen to their concerns about money, and ask a lot of questions about their history about money and their attitude about money. I’m listening and exploring areas of concern and fear.”
While some financial advisors may not know how to go about having conversations about estate planning and other difficult topics, they need to find a way to learn if they truly want to best serve their clients, she said.
Thomas’ typical client has between half a million and $5 million in investible assets, she said. While she has clients on retainer, she also serves some clients for just one year, to help them get their financial house in order, or because they already handle most of their own investments but want a second opinion. “For some people I’m training wheels,” she said. “Other people need me on an ongoing basis."
Thomas said that one of the biggest problems she sees facing the financial planning industry is confusion and the high level of misinformation among the general public.
“The clients and the public are bombarded and confused by the information about our industry,” Thomas said.
She said there are two main problems. First, is the terminology used by the financial services industry -- “what we call ourselves,” she said. With other professionals, like doctors, people understand the various specialties -- they know that for a cold they go to a general practitioner but for a broken bone they might need to see an orthopedist. But if they have questions about financial planning they can go to a private banker, an investment manager, a financial planner, a financial advisor, or any of a number of other types of professional, and the distinctions among these different people are not often clear.
“More people could use professional services,” when it comes to money decisions, Thomas said. ”But they don’t know what we do because nobody tells the story. That’s our challenge.”
Television programming about finances can also provide more confusion. “What’s really entertainment is presented as information,” she said, with talking heads going on TV to say things about money and finances that viewers take as fact when they may well not be. In other cases, television programs provide good information but it’s been taken out of context, she said. When that is combined with Internet searches, plus finance articles in magazines and newspapers, for many people “it’s hard to filter what’s important and what’s not,” she said.
Thomas said she is doing her part to combat the misinformation through a monthly newsletter and by writing a book to help people make financial decisions. “I get the same questions over and over,” she said. Her writing “is an attempt to combat the flood of misinformation out there.”