“Did you hear the one about the client who …”
Some clients have their acts together. Others have inherited or created financial train wrecks before getting their advisers involved. We asked planners to tell us about the biggest messes clients have ever handed them. Click through the list to read their stories.
David Haraway
Substantial Financial
Colorado Springs, Colorado

Haraway saw a recently widowed client who had been treated poorly by two insurance agents.

“The client, who lives with her disabled adult daughter, receives roughly $30,000 a year in Social Security income, plus required minimum IRA distributions of about $13,000,” he says. "The agents had sold her annuities that ate up most of her net worth, plus insurance policies with premiums that equaled nearly half her annual income — to pay for contracts that would likely lapse before paying any death benefit.”

By appealing to the agents’ employer, Haraway was able to undo the life insurance contract. He counseled the widow to take 10% a year out of the annuities, as the contract allowed, until she got her money back.
Edward Vargo
Founder & Private Wealth Manager
Burning River Advisory Group
Westlake, Ohio

Vargo recalls an instance involving a client and her young daughters, who were ages two and four at the time. The client’s husband had recently died of cancer.

Within three weeks, Vargo says, the husband’s financial adviser had persuaded the widow to apply for variable universal life insurance policy, fund two non-traded REITs, open and fund a variable annuity, open and fund two 529 plans, and roll over her husband's IRA and company retirement plan into a fee-based IRA.

In short, the adviser had tied up almost all of the family's $1.25 million in assets in high-commission products with no liquidity. Because of that, the 40-year old widow had only $250,000 in liquid assets to support her family, Vargo says.

The solution?

“We had no options on the two non-traded REITs, as they had high surrender fees and a general lack of liquidity,” he says. “We transferred the 529 plans to a more appropriate 529 plan without additional fees, stopped the purchase of cash value life insurance and looked at more suitable options, and were able to unwind the variable annuity, including the huge commission, as it was within the 30-day free-look period. She went from $250,000 to $1 million in liquid assets.”
Rick Kahler
President and Owner
Kahler Financial Group
Rapid City, South Dakota

Kahler found his good deed didn’t go unpunished when a new client inherited management of her aunt’s portfolio via a durable power of attorney.

“It was a mess way over her head,” Kahler says. “One hundred percent of the portfolio was in stocks from 100 different companies, held over decades."

The client didn't know where the certificates were or what her basis was, and sought to turn management over to Kahler's firm.

“It took us a year to find certificates, obtain replacements, and research basis. Then she fired us the quarter after we completed the cleanup. We still have post-traumatic stress disorder over that engagement,” he says.
Judith McGee
McGee Financial
Portland, Oregon

McGee had a fix for a couple that wanted out from under a life insurance policy loan. Her clients bought a high-premium cash value life insurance policy and borrowed around $200,000 against it over the years, she said.

“They were paying 8% interest and wanted help. If they let the policy blow up, there were taxes to pay and they would lose the remaining cash value,” McGee says.

The solution? “They had an investment account with our firm. We could borrow against their securities for less than the loan interest and pay off the whole life insurance debt," she says.

After the clients borrowed the money, McGee transferred the cash values through a tax-advantaged 1035 exchange into a variable annuity that had an income benefit.

The annuity distributed the income to the margin account, paying for the loan. They set up a repayment plan in order to retire the debt over time.

"In the end, they had no tax bill and they added an income-producing asset,” McGee says.
Daniel Frankel
Founding Principal
Bellevue, Washington

Cross-cultural love nearly tripped up some of Frankel's clients. Two couples he worked with each had one spouse who was not an American citizen.

"In one case, the estate planning attorney had neglected to ask and documents were created as if both clients were citizens," Frankel says. This can create a lot of tax and estate issues, as the non-citizen does not qualify for a marital deduction."

When Frankel broke the news to his clients, they were surprised. "We found this out well before either client passed away and worked with them to become U.S. citizens, making adjustments to their plans in the meantime,” he says.
Gretchen Stangier
Stangier Wealth Management
Portland, Oregon

Stangier got a call from a CPA friend who had seen some odd movements of money in her elderly mother’s investment account.

“The investment manager wouldn’t return her phone calls,” Stangier recalls. “I had to fly to Texas in order to figure out what had happened.”

She discovered that the investment manager had taken the older woman’s money out of mutual funds when he lost his securities license. He still had his insurance license, so he invested the funds in annuities.

“Then he churned the annuities, doing an exchange from one company to another company,” Stangier says. “The underlying investments were identical, so there was no benefit to the client. The client lost money, because the exchange was just four years into the surrender charge period. I calculated that the investment manager made about $60,000 off mom’s accounts in commissions over the 10 years, but her accounts only made $10,000 during that period.”

In the end, Stangier says, Texas took away the adviser’s license.

“They found that he had done this to other older clients, too,” she says.
Kristin Sullivan
Sullivan Financial Planning
Denver, Colorado

Sullivan remembers clients who brought her $2 million in stock certificates.

“One day as I was working the counter at a large discount brokerage branch, a couple came in — without an appointment, of course — with a stack of around 100 physical stock certificates,” she says. “The certificates were in the name of the client's deceased father, so there were five different forms for each certificate that had to be filled out, signed, notarized or signature guaranteed, copied, and then mailed to the transfer agent. I sat with those people for seven solid hours to get all of those certificates put into their accounts."
Karen Altfest
Principal Advisor, Executive Vice President of Client Relations
Altfest Personal Wealth Management
New York

Altfest received a call from a perspective client who asked if a planner could come to her house.

“She’d been a widow for a few years and didn’t go out much, and her apartment was only a few blocks from mine,” Altfest says.

Altfest went to the client's house and was given a tour of her home, including a room that had belonged to her husband.

"It was full of filing cabinets, and on top of all those files were hundreds of unopened envelopes. Statements came every month, she said, but she didn’t ever look at them,” Altfest said.

Altfest and a colleague helped the woman open the envelopes, a few at a time.

“Some of them had statements. Some of them had dividend checks. We had to request new checks on some of the payments, because they were so old. By the end, she had a total of six figures in found money,” Altfest says.