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$45 trillion in wealth will be transfer. What percentage of that would you like?

Over the next 30 years, an epic $45 trillion will be passed down from baby boomers to Generation X to millennials. In that enormous transfer of wealth, many investment advisers will see their hard-earned asset base evaporate — and the value of their firms plummet — because they don’t know how to connect with their clients’ children. The problem is especially difficult for the many advisers ill-equipped to connect with clients who are technology savvy and expect a very different service experience than their parents did.

“The largest wealth transfer ever is coming and financial advisers are looking down the barrel of not being used by the heirs of the vast majority of their current clients,” said Vic Preisser, founding director of the Institute for Preparing Heirs, a consultancy that works with advisers on wealth transfer issues.

A hit to the business

The simple, undeniable truth is this: Sixty-six percent of children fire their parents’ financial adviser after they inherit their parents’ wealth, according to an InvestmentNews survey of 544 advisers in April.

Advisers unable to prove they are effective at establishing relationships with clients’ children and serving the next generation also will discover their businesses are worth less to potential buyers, experts said.

How often advisers meet with clients’ children
53.68%17.06%8.44%1.61%1.08%18.13%

Less than once a yearOnce a yearTwo to three times a yearQuarterlyMore than four times a yearI do not meet with any of my clients’ children
How advisers rank their business risks
(Hover over the pie.)
12.79%

“Advisers are woefully behind in getting to know their clients’ adult children,” said Bernie Clark, head of Schwab Advisor Services. “The tricky part is that boomers still have to be served, so I think advisers will have to go through a period with multiple models to make sure they are serving all clients.”

At the same time, the giant wealth transfer on the horizon could be an opportunity for advisers who have a plan to draw in the children of their best clients and become the trusted family adviser.

Training the next generation

With proper guidance, advisers might even train heirs to be better stewards of their family’s wealth than past generations — a bar that wouldn’t be that tough to raise, given 70% of family money disappears by the end of the second generation, and 90% is gone by the end of the third, according to oft-cited research of 3,250 families conducted in 2003 by Mr. Preisser and Roy Williams, an independent wealth transfer consultant who helps advisers.

Advisers are woefully behind in getting to know their clients’ adult children.— Bernie Clark,  head of Schwab Advisor Services

“Bringing up wealth transfer with clients shows them you care about the future success of their children; it can be a huge differentiator,” said Diane Doolin, an adviser with Morgan Stanley Wealth Management. “It’s not just about advisers losing assets when the clients die, it’s about taking the current relationships to a deeper level.”

In most cases, however, advisers aren’t even trying to make inroads with clients’ children.

Only 20% of advisers are targeting younger family members of their clients, according to a survey in February by Corporate Insight.

Many advisers said they don’t know how to appeal to clients’ kids, or they believe that connection is not worth the effort.

For some, it’s too much work to invest time developing relationships with a client’s family, given how diluted assets can become as they are passed from one generation to the next, said Silviya Simeonova, an analyst at Corporate Insight. Advisers who have their own retirement in sight and aren’t planning a second evolution of their firm are especially reluctant to invest the time.

“I’m not trying to collect new clients,” said Walter Altorfer, 71, principal of WRA & Associates. He rarely works with clients’ children and isn’t worried about his firm’s valuation.

Mr. Altorfer doesn’t foresee selling his advisory firm, having found it too difficult to find a successor.

But advisers who are dedicated to building their firms and creating sustainable businesses will need to start imagining what their balance sheets would look like if 66% of their best clients departed.

Next-generation client explains why she stayed

Often, heirs bring the assets to an adviser they already work with or choose to manage the money themselves. Sometimes the inheritance is split among so many parties there’s not much left to manage. And in other cases, heirs just spend the assets too quickly.

Immune to advice

Mike Johnson, a principal with Moneta Group, got a call from one of his client’s children the same week the client died to ask how soon he could have his mother’s money.

“He said he was building a pool and the contractor wanted to be paid,” Mr. Johnson said.

Some children aren’t used to paying for financial advice and don’t see the wisdom in doing so, even after they are suddenly awash in wealth.

“I see 60-year-old children, who have created little of their own wealth, leave and take the assets because they don’t want to pay us to manage the money,” said Sybil Praski, an adviser with Prosperion Financial Advisors. “I have worked with clients for 25 years sometimes and all of a sudden their wealth was gone.”

From the child’s perspective, if they do want the advice but have no relationship with their parents’ adviser or one of their own, they will likely seek a financial professional who is closer to their own age or one who appeals to their own interests or needs. Why would they remain with an adviser who’s destined to retire before they do?

The biggest obstacle to retaining assets passed to heirs
#1 Lack of a relationship
30%
#2 Children spend the assets too quickly
20%
#3 Inheritance is split among too many parties
18%
#4 Clients are unwilling to include adult children in meetings about wealth
15%
#5 Children show no interest in having the same adviser manage their assets
12%
#6 Inherited assets are too small to manage profitably
5%

For Anne, who asked that her last name not be included, the responsibility of overseeing the multimillion-dollar estate her father left her three years ago when he died was overwhelming.

She transferred her inheritance away from the two brokers who had handled the money for her father at a large firm because she didn’t feel she was getting enough direction.

Anne brought the assets to Family Wealth Planning Group because Tom La Macchio and his partners seemed to better understand what she needed, which was everything from hand-holding to creating a trust for her son.

“I had big decisions in front of me and I didn’t know how to deal with it,” said Anne, 58. “With their guidance, I could start seeing pathways and a vision of how to do this.”

The lack of a relationship, like in the case of Anne and her father’s financial professionals, is the No. 1 reason advisers lose assets when clients leave their wealth to their children, according to the InvestmentNews survey of advisers.

The absence of a relationship between advisers and clients’ children also affects how much buyers may be willing to offer for an advisory firm, even before the money changes hands between ge