I expected to be their advisor — instead I became a surrogate parent to their kids

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As a young man, I received a vivid demonstration of why readiness and preparation are so important for financial advisors.

I was still in my mid-20s when I found myself thrust into a parental role for a pair of teenagers. Looking back, it was something I had been preparing for all my life.

In 1999 I moved to the small town of Fairview, Oklahoma, to join a firm that was transitioning from focusing solely on taxes to an integrated service model that also encompassed wealth management, financial and business planning.

The firm’s founder introduced me to a self-employed couple with whom he had been working. I was only 25 but understood that they were entrusting me with every aspect of their financial lives — managing their assets, helping set up wills and trusts, advising on life insurance — a huge responsibility.

While working on their comprehensive financial plan, we discussed a worst-case scenario: who would care for their two sons in the event of a tragedy. The couple had no close relatives in the area so we eventually settled on a friend from their church and a neighbor who was also a close friend. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was definitely a practical one.

I was confident we’d planned for every foreseeable contingency, but that didn’t prepare me for the day two years later when I got a call and learned that the wife passed away at age 51. Less than a year later, the father died from a heart attack. Their sons, 13 and 16 at the time, were left orphans.

I began to work on safeguarding their parents’ financial legacy, interacting with various lawyers, bankers, insurers and guardians to see that the trusts we had set up began paying out and that the provisions of the estate plan were being executed.

I also found myself taking a much more active role in the kids’ lives. Although I wasn’t a relative, both boys knew me from coming to the office with their parents. They trusted me because their parents did, and that familiarity laid the foundation for the deeper relationships I developed with them over the next few years.

It wasn’t always about money. They came to me for advice and support on real life issues — spending habits, jobs, education, girlfriends, faith, family — all the things you’d normally turn to your parents for.

And, like a parent, sometimes I had to say “no,” as when the elder son called to see if he could afford to travel overseas with his youth group. The unplanned trip just wasn’t in the budget, so I suggested he start thinking about what he needed to do to afford it next year.

Both those boys are now grown men living their own lives. We’re still in touch and I remain close with them to this day.

When I first sat down with that couple years ago, none of us expected to be putting their plan into action so soon. This experience showed me that advisors need to have strong personal relationships with everyone in the family, including the children. Unexpected events, especially ones that take a personal toll, can throw the best plans off course. Although it may be difficult, the more advisors try to anticipate scenarios they hope won’t happen, the better their solutions will be.

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