With about $70 trillion in wealth transfers expected over the next 22 years, the conversations clients have with advisors about their inheritance plans show a shocking lack of timeliness and transparency, according to a survey by Cerulli Associates.

While the majority of asset holders (79%) plan to share their wishes and intentions with family before dying, only 46% actually do, the Boston-based financial services research firm reported in this month’s “Wealth Transfer Issue” report.

What’s lost are the conversations that can keep family members on the same page about what will happen with an inheritance and why, said Scott Smith, Cerulli’s research director.

“There’s all kinds of rationales that go into bequests, and if it’s not discussed beforehand, it could create conflict and undermine the attempt to create a legacy,” he said. “‘Why did my brother get $50,000, and I only got $20,000?’ ‘Well, he has three kids, and I want to see them all go to college.’ That kind of conflict is probably the last thing the client wants.”

The survey targeted two client demographics that are important to financial services providers: affluent investors, with more than $250,000 in investable assets, and the near-affluent, those investors who are under 45 and earn more than $125,000. The responses were weighted to reflect the distribution of households within these segments, which are wealthier and older than the average U.S. population.

The reason wealth transfer conversations are not being had, primarily, is that for a lot of financial advisors who don’t see themselves as holistic financial planners, it would require stepping outside a comfort zone, Smith said.

“The average, 50- or 60-year-old advisor came up with, ‘I run portfolios, that’s the basis of my value proposition.’ In recent years, we’ve certainly seen more focus on financial planning overall—goal-based, behavioral finance—but all this stuff is in the minority,” Smith said. “We have 300,000 advisors in the U.S., and probably 150,000 of them are running their book of business the same way as they did 10 years ago.”

Advisors not pursuing bequest conversations is part of the problem. The other part is the tendency of clients to treat their financial details as closely held secrets. After a lifetime of not saying anything about their money, it’s hard to suddenly change, Cerulli found.

When asked about how well informed their heirs are about their desires and plans for bequests, only 26% of respondents said their heirs were very well informed, and the greater the wealth, the more likely that was the case. Some 32% of respondents with more than $1 million in investable assets said their heirs knew of their plans.

On the flip side, 47% of those with less than $250,000 to pass on were either not sure, thought their heirs were somewhat uninformed or admitted their heirs had absolutely no idea. Those responses about heirs being less aware dropped to 29% among those with $1 million to $2 million. And only 26% of survey participants with more than $2 million made these comments about their heirs’ relative lack of information.

“No one likes to be uncomfortable, and this is a difficult conversation on both sides, especially if an advisor is used to just talking about returns,” Smith said. “We have this whole pile of discomfort. But it’s also prioritization. Talking to next-generation clients and talking about wealth transfer probably falls to 11th or 12th on an advisor’s top 10 list of things to do that day, just because things come up and the ROI for these conversations isn’t immediate.”

Advisors need to ask three questions at the very least about a wealth transfer, Smith said:

• Do you have a plan?
• Is it written down?
• What’s our next step?

Cerulli’s report identified nine data points that lead to specific, recommended action opportunities, of which these five are critical:

1. With 73% of affluent investors expecting to pass a large portion of their wealth to heirs, advisors need first to plan for how the client wishes to live in retirement, and then to establish a bequest plan.

2. Even if skipping generations offers tax advantages, the overwhelming majority of heirs receive their inheritance directly from a parent after that parent dies. Having legal documents in order, such as wills and trust agreements, ensures an orderly transfer of wealth, but so can joint account ownerships if a client isn’t ready to create the more formal paperwork.

3. When clients were asked who they turned to for wealth distribution advice, 46% said advisors, while 48% said spouses, the survey found. That means discussions between the advisor and client about wealth transfer should include the spouse. Not only does this ensure there will be no surprises when a client dies, but it also gives the advisor and spouse a chance to get to know each other and build trust, Cerulli said.

4. Although a key component of successful wealth transfer is communication, the survey found that a full 25% of respondents don’t intend ever to share the information about the subject while they’re alive. Unfortunately, this prevents comprehensive planning from taking place, since some aspects of wealth planning—such as who has guardianship over the assets if the client dies earlier than expected—require active planning while the client is alive. Cerulli recommended that advisors nudge their older clients into disclosing their plans to their siblings, spouses and heirs.

5. Because healthcare costs late in life can quickly eat into the assets available to pass to the next generation, advisors should be proactive about the healthcare conversation and thus help clients manage expenses and preserve as much wealth as possible, the survey said.