Financial advisors are in a unique position to help clients preserve their legacies as human beings, as well as their money.
When I went home to visit my 85-year-old mom
recently, she'd pulled out old photographs and diaries and knickknacks
that she'd collected over the years: her life story. She needed me to
acknowledge them and to discuss with her how to hand them on in the
most meaningful way. Would Zach and Tom appreciate this old coin
collection? If so, would I split it into two sandwich bags? Randomly?
Would Krista want one of the teapots mom collected over the years? How
about old photographs? Would anyone be interested? Could I help her to
My mom lives in a rent-subsidized apartment for seniors in northern Minnesota. She manages fine on Social Security income and a small state pension. She doesn't need a will because her assets are minimal. But her life certainly wasn't insignificant. People always ask me if it is difficult to be the daughter of a saint. (It is.) She touched hundreds of people and now she wants her memories and her beliefs and her values to live on. All she has is her story. Before I carry on too long, I should say that this is a column about helping clients preserve their life stories.
OK. My mom is my responsibility. But Americans with far more assets than my mom-and even those with less-want their stories, their suffering and their triumphs, their wisdom, the events that became watersheds in their lives, to live on. That's because people are storytellers. Most of us continually write and update our own life story, even if it consists of no more than a fantasy written inside our heads.
But now some researchers say that our stories are far more important than a fantasy, that, in fact, the way we each tell our story can influence what kind of life we will have, our future success and even our happiness. We know that storytelling is the way we pass on cultural and religious traditions, how we communicate to new generations the inspirations and values of their forebears. But The New York Times suggests in an article in the Science Times section on May 22, 2007-"This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It)"- that the way someone tells his own story and the story itself contribute to the way an individual sees himself. Furthermore, the way he sees himself may change as he recasts his story in light of distinctive turning points in his life. "Research so far suggests that people's life stories are neither rigid nor wildly variable," the article says, "but rather change gradually over time, in close tandem with meaningful life events."
What does this have to do with financial advisors? Is that what you're thinking? A good deal, I think, because financial advisors probably know more about their clients' life stories than anyone else outside of family and close friends. And most planners care about how these stories affect clients, how they can help improve their lives and how they can be passed on to heirs along with the irrevocable trusts.
I've sometimes said that my understanding of the job of a financial advisor underwent a sea change in the mid-'90s when I wrote a book called Best Practices for Financial Advisors. Before I wrote the book I, like many if not most consumers, believed that the only reason to hire a financial planner is if you need help with investing and refuse to learn to do it yourself. Even for those folks, there's the Vanguard STAR fund, with its diversified portfolio of six other Vanguard funds that provides a low-cost and decent-performing option.
My myopic point of view was turned on its head when I attended the annual ICFP retreat in July 1996 in Traverse City, Mich. I was new to the retreat and I expected sessions on humdrum personal finance issues. Instead Dr. William R. Nixon Jr., a psychoanalyst from Birmingham, Mich., gave an eye-opening presentation on the mindset of a client when he decides he needs a financial planner.
Money represents all the most powerful feelings a person confronts, Nixon said-power, love, sex, hope. "Working with a financial planner means delving into the most volatile of human conflicts," Nixon said. It's not about the money. It's about what the money means, how what a client does with his money can be critical to his sense of self-worth, his comfort with himself, his sense of family.
I was thinking about all this stuff and how to preserve it, how to pass it on, last spring when I met Iris Wagner, who, like many of us, spent years in the financial services business before she discovered what she considers her calling: helping families professionally produce their life stories. Armed with a degree in business, Wagner worked for Canada's largest bank, first in international finance and then as a participant in the bank's corporate/international management development program.
What she saw was that her real love was not the corporate world but entrepreneurs, particularly those who created family dynasties to pass on to future generations. Wagner moved to the technology industry, where she coordinated a private placement for a high-tech start-up and became chief financial officer of the company. But she still longed to do something more creative; she got a master's degree in film and communications, worked on an IMAX production and wondered how she could use her dual interests in filmmaking and families to do something different with her career.
What she did was create Memoirs Productions, a company that makes professional-quality videos for families so they can pass on their lives to offspring. Wagner is passionate about this business, noting that every family story reveals surprises about the family patriarch and matriarch that delight their children. For example, one man donated money each year to the diabetes foundation, and also provided for the foundation in his will. But his children had no idea that he had lost his two-year-old brother to the disease; that's what made his gift so meaningful to him-and now, to them.
Wagner does a series of off-camera interviews with each family to explore core values, beliefs, reflections on life, hopes for the future. Out of this meeting comes a blueprint for the later filming. Then Wagner brings in professional lighting and camera crews to film the story. She suggests that the families invite all the members to a premiere showing of the film. Clients always tell her that the DVD screening became part of a wonderful family celebration and that it opened communication between different generations, something that many families are working hard to do.
Wagner's company (www.memoirs.ca) is one of many that have sprouted over the last decade as baby boomers face the deaths of their parents and sometimes make a last attempt to connect with them. Wagner mentions that Robert De Niro, the actor and filmmaker, told Esquire magazine that his one regret is that he didn't get as much of his family history for his kids as he could have. "When a parent dies, it's the end," he said.
But De Niro is in the film business. Certainly my mother would not welcome filmmakers and cameras into her tiny apartment. She is a self-effacing Swedish Lutheran woman who would wonder what the fuss was about and probably shoo them away. Still, I'd like to do something to preserve her life story. I could write.
I have a feeling that there's something important in all of this. I spend time at thrift shops and yard sales and flea markets, and I'm told that old framed family photographs sell very quickly. What do customers do with them? They hang them on their walls. Vintage is high fashion.
Wagner urges her own friends, who are in their thirties, to write a letter to each child on his birthday and save them all until the child is 21. For my own children, I kept journals from the time they were born, matched them with photographs and compiled a sort of "This Is Your Life" album that I gave to each of them when they were teenagers.
I wonder how each of you handles this issue with clients. Have you thought about it? Do you discuss it with them? Have you put together a program to preserve a family's heritage? Please send me your ideas. This looks like financial life planning at its best.
Mary Rowland can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a business and personal finance
journalist for 30 years, a half dozen of them as a weekly columnist for
the Sunday New York Times. She wrote a column called Practice Points
for Bloomberg Wealth Manager for six years. Her six books include two
written for financial advisors: Best Practices, and In Search of the