THE SECRETS BABY BOOMER KEEP
HOW TO ADDRESS YOUR CLIENTS HIDDEN BAGGAGE – BY LINDA KOCO
Baby boomers are no strangers to secret-keeping. In fact, to hear their insurance and financial advisors tell it, boomers often come into planning sessions with invisible baggage—full of secrets that they sometimes tell the advisor or that the advisor later finds out the hard way. Through training, as well as trial and error, they have developed strategies for addressing the matter, delicate though it might sometimes be. Becoming privy to those secrets can put the advisor in a dicey situation, particularly if the secret is pertinent to insurance arrangements and financial plans. What to do? Blow the boomer’s cover? Look the other way? Send the boomer packing? Wait for verification? Advisors say they often encounter not only secrets but also their handmaidens—forgetting and misunderstanding.
IS THIS A BOOMER THING?
Secrets are as old as the ages. But experienced advisors say baby boom-ers tend to be more secretive in their financial dealings than the previous generation.
Boomers who are now in their 50s and 60s often have multiple relation-ships and dross from prior relation-ships, says Leon LaBrecque, the CEO of LJPR, a financial advisory firm inTroy,Mich.He says he finds they conceal more than do their parents, the “Silent Generation.” The males conceal more health information and the females, more financial information.
By comparison, he says, “the ‘silents’ are mostly forthcoming and provide full disclosure of information needed for insurance and financial planning. They are also, usually, living in the original marriage.”
Boomers’ reluctance to share information may be due to their broken lives and perhaps some forgetting, LaBrecque posits. That can lead to “neglected beneficiaries,” “forgotten beneficiaries” and out-of-date wills and trusts, he says.
Still, there is quite a bit of “him hiding information from her, and her from him,” he continues. The hidden information might have to do with assets in IRAs or other products about which the other spouse does not know.
Some boomer couples work both sides of the fence. They say one thing when visiting the advisor’s office together but quite another during individual meetings with the same advisor, LaBrecque says. Often, the outcome depends on the stronger spouse. “The weaker spouse, if not satisfied, might refuse to participate altogether or insist on putting all the money in the bank or give it to the kids,” he says.
Boomer expectations play a role in the secretiveness, points out Ed Zurek, vice president at The Assurance Agency,Schaumburg,Ill.Many boomers had moved through their working years with the expectation that their houses and portfolios would be worth more by time they retired, he explains. But the market downturn of 2007-2009 brought the reverse, in addition to layoffs, foreclosures and other upheavals.
That created a lot of stress for boomers, he says, especially since many of them “aren’t used to not getting their own way.” He tells of husbands who are keeping their layoffs secret from their spouses by heading off to the out-placement center every day in lieu of the office, and women who are keeping their family’s sharply reduced income a secret from friends so as not to be ostracized.
Often, those who were once high earners do not speak about their problems with anybody, not even their close friends. In fact, Zurek says, they don’t have friendship circles. “They have status circles.” The anguish and shame follows them into sessions with the financial advisor, he says.
Zurek, who specializes in employee benefits, also sees boomers who ask for private meetings with him following a group meeting at the worksite. “They want to discuss a secret—such as a prior substance abuse problem— that they don’t want their employer to know.”
In addition, many boomers with-hold information and concerns from their adult children, Zurek says. Examples are possible future long-term care (LTC) needs and end-of-life issues. The boomers may have already dealt with these issues when helping their own parents, he says, but “amazingly, they say they don’t want to alarm their own children.”
Zurek suspects some of this reluctance has to do with the fact that boomers don’t like facing their own mortality.Rather than spending money for an LTC policy or end-of-life planning, they will focus on giving money to their kids— who, he adds, “often have an entitlement mentality.”
If the advisor is in the loop on private information but not the spouse or the family, it also makes it hard to develop comprehensive plans, advisors say.
There are complicating factors that make the planning even more difficult too. For instance, many boomers have diverse families; with no one close living nearby. “The over-the-turkey-dinner discussions just don’t take place,” notes Zurek. “They don’t happen on the webcam either.”
Even if the adult children are aware of the issues, many “don’t want to talk about it,” he adds. They feel scared, or they say that bringing the subject up “might make everyone uncomfortable.”
Providing health information poses problems, as well. Boomers sometimes withhold certain health details when applying for life insurance, points out Wendy Swanson, marketing coordinator at Senior Market Sales, an IMO inOmaha,Neb.
Sometimes the person is trying to get a better rate that way, she says. A smoker might deny tobacco use, for instance, believing that no one will know and that the urine specimen will not detect the nicotine.
Other times, it’s an innocent error or oversight, Swanson says. She recalls how one application for life insurance got rejected due to such an error. “The app was on a very wealthy man. It went out table-approved from field under-writing but came back declined—due to a pacemaker. The agent asked the man: ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ The man said: ‘I don’t think about it [the pacemaker] until it kicks in.’ ”
Other boomers don’t report health information because they think a con-dition they once had is now gone due to the treatment, Swanson says.
Misinformation is another complica-tion. For instance, boomers may report they don’t use tobacco. “They will say, ‘I only have a cigar now and again,’ with-out realizing it’s nicotine,” she says. “Or, they may think that because they haven’t been to a doctor in a long while, they are healthy.”
In such cases, the answers may look like secrets unless the advisor uncovers the client’s misunderstanding.
Sometimes, advisors notice some-thing unusual or unexpected and may suspect a deliberate secret is in the air without really being sure.
For example, Swanson tells of a man who called for a quote on a single premium immediate annuity. “He wanted a joint payout but for it to be set up so that if he dies first, the wife gets half the payout, but if she dies first, he gets 100 percent of the payout.” The unusual arrangement made her wonder: Did the wife know? Why does he want to do this?
Swanson did seek answers to the questions. Other advisors say they also take steps to elicit information that clears up uncertainties. The approaches vary depending on the situation, though.
WHAT TO DO
The first thing to keep in mind is that agents do have to fill out suit-ability forms issued by carriers, notes Robert W. Johnson, principal of R.W. Johnson & Associates, Retirement Planners and Insurance, Ontario, Calif. The suitability questions about investments, bank accounts and other assets help weed out people who are very secretive, he says. “The questions also preclude agents from getting the wrong information.”
The subsequent compliance review by the insurance company helps to ferret out secrets too. “They will investigate if they need to,” Johnson says.
But advisors often detect potential secrets early on. Johnson, for instance, requests height and weight and other information before ever meeting a new client so he can get an idea for a preliminary rate. Then, in the first meeting, he “sizes them up” to get a sense of accuracy on height and weight.
Later, when discussing health issues, if the boomer starts minimizing things—such as saying, “Oh, I just have a little sugar problem”—he takes that as a sign to probe deeper. He may ask for results of the client’s A1c, the hemoglobin test for diabetes.
The probing may make some clients feel uncomfortable, he admits. Nevertheless, he says, he persists. “You have to make them understand that, ‘This is an insurance policy. The company is taking the risk. The more information you give, and if blood or urine tests come back good, you’ll probably get a good rate.’”
Sometimes, if the boomer refuses to disclose information, Johnson responds, “I can’t do your insurance.” Some boomers get mad and walk out, he allows, but others decide to provide it.
Beneficiary information may signal potential secrecy too. “Red lights go off all the time here,” says Johnson. A client might name a daughter as beneficiary instead of the wife, for example. He says he does inquire about this, and then writes the answer on the application, flagging it as confidential.
The answer might be that the couple is getting a divorce. But if the client says “we’re not getting along,” John-son holds off and checks with the carrier. “The underwriter might say, ‘wait a while and have him come back later,’ ” Johnson says.
Hidden bank accounts are common among boomers in second marriages, points out LaBrecque. “They will often admit it but not the amount,” he says. If this creates an impasse, he asks: “Don’t you think we should work this out so you will both be happy with it?” Then he sends them home with three options to consider: develop confidential plans separately; disclose the information but develop separate plans; or develop a cohesive plan for both. Usually, they will do the first option if they come back individually, he says. But if they come back together, they choose the second or third option.
It helps to pay close attention to clues, LaBrecque adds. If one spouse is quiet, for example, LaBrecque will direct attention to that person, asking, “What are your thoughts?” This can often elicit undisclosed information and feelings, he says.
The thing to realize in dealing with boomer couples is that the two people think differently and often have different goals, LaBrecque stresses. “The risk for the advisor is listening only to one of them.” Nothing happens if they are not in unison, agrees Greg Pedrola, owner of Senior Embrace LLC,Waukegan,Ill.He believes it is crucial to first establish trust with the client. This takes time “and if they are not ready, they are not ready,” he says.
New clients, especially high-net-worth clients, may be secretive because they are concerned about how their private information will be protected, Pedrola points out.
Pedrola suggests that agents focus only on the task at hand and not ask for unrelated information or mention other services. He says he learned that lesson the hard way. When he was starting out, he mentioned IRAs and asked for financial statements while in the middle of a discussion with a couple about Medicare supplement insurance.
The wife’s demeanor changed rapidly and she left the room, he says, noting that he had lost trust at that moment. “You better know what you are doing. You better be honest and truthful. That helps with building trust,” Pedrola concludes.
With boomers who withhold information out of shame due to financial setbacks, Zurek focuses on “bringing them back to earth” by suggesting things to think about now and risks for which they need to prepare. He also asks them to focus on what is important. He might ask “Do you want to help the next generation after you’re gone or while you’re here?” or “How are you going to handle it if you end up in a nursing home tomorrow?”
“The worst sin is pride,” Zurek adds. “It leads you to do dumb things, and then the situation gets worse.”
BE A FACILITATOR
“The advisor’s job is to be a facilitator of wants, needs or dreams—not a judge,” says Swanson. The distinction is important when advisors encounter clients who make financial decisions that the advisor would not make and that may appear to be tied to some kind of secret, she says.
“For instance, a client may want to name a charity, rather than the children, as beneficiary y. The advisor might think, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ But the advisor’s job is to educate, be factual and help the client do what the client wants.”
If the advisor is a friend or golf partner of the client, the advisor might ask the client about the decision, to be sure something is not being missed, Swanson suggests. Other advisors might ask the client to sign a statement of understanding about the decision and then keep the statement on file in case family members later complain, she adds.
But most experts agree that there is a place advisors can’t go in dealing with suspicions about the secrets of their clients. If a boomer’s secretiveness makes the advisor uneasy, the best recourse might be to disengage, several say. Also, agents should keep in mind that they are not counselors or lawyers, Swanson says. “The information they have is not privileged.” So, it is a fine line for advisors. They need to know when to probe and when to pull back. They need to be counselor and guide while keeping a sharp eye for clues leading to the secrets boomers keep.
Linda Koco, MBA, is a contributing editor to InsuranceNewsNet. She specializes in life insurance, annuities and income planning.