A complete financial plan requires a proper mix of investments, insurance, tax planning and legal work. Because it is difficult — even impossible — to be competent and properly licensed in all these areas, professionals often take a team approach to financial planning. Financial advisors, accountants and attorneys each bring a unique perspective that can be beneficial to a client.
Unfortunately, a team approach can often lead to scheduling conflicts, differences of opinion, ego battles or personality conflicts that can bog down the process and create frustration for everyone involved. The purpose of this article is to help readers improve their ability to work as a team in developing a sound financial plan for their clients.
As a financial planner and an estate planning attorney, we’ve spent many years refining a team-oriented, cross-functional approach to advising clients. Here we’ve captured several typical situations that illustrate the need for better coordination between the advisors clients look to for help in building their financial future.
1. A financial advisor spends considerable time and effort creating an investment policy statement and a diversified portfolio for a client to later discover that the client’s attorney or CPA disparages one or more product recommendations without understanding the financial planning that has taken place. A situation like this can lead to stagnation. Stagnation — doing little or nothing — is seldom good for the client.
2. An attorney creates a legal structure and later discovers that the accountant is reporting the taxes inconsistent with the legal documents.
3. A financial advisor recommends investments that would otherwise be appropriate but are not suitable within a certain legal structure. In this era where suitability is so critically important, working with an attorney can add an extra layer of oversight and protection.
4. An attorney or CPA discusses investments or insurance without the education, training, licensing or proper perspective.
5. A single professional provides advice in his or her area of practice while ignoring the other professionals’ areas, leaving large gaps in the plan.
6. A client attempts to save money by preparing his or her own tax returns or legal documents or investing in a manner that is unsuitable for his or her objectives and/or lacks proper diversification.
Building your team
The first and most important part of developing an effective team approach to financial planning is to select the right team members. Like they say in sports, the key to becoming a great coach is to find great players.
Great players are sought after because they fill a specific role, have the right experience and ability, and can fit together within the team. To help shed light on how the process works for building a team of advisors, the following are ideal characteristics that Ray, as a financial advisor, looks for in estate planning attorney partners:
• Specializes in trusts and estate planning and has a reputation for doing customized work and staying up on the latest developments.
• Will put a fence around his/her costs and not nickel-and-dime the client.
• Is timely in action and will not drag the process out.
• Is open to ideas and not egocentric.
• Is honest, ethical and conservative in his or her recommendations.
• Understands and appreciates the need for open discussion and is accepting of perspectives that are new or even different in order to accomplish the goals of the client.
• Clearly delineates what the client can expect and the type of service that is offered.
The following are traits Lee, as an estate planning attorney, looks for in financial advisor partners:
• Asks the right questions, listens attentively to the client’s objectives and gives advice based on a written plan that describes how the plan meets the objectives.
• Takes a holistic approach to financial planning; understands the big picture; addresses the entire situation and not only a part of the client’s financial situation.
• Recommends a product mix based on the client’s wishes and the client’s best interest, not the planner’s preferred products or the highest-commission products.
• Is willing to spend time educating the client about the issues, helping the client understand the plan and helping the client organize documents pertaining to the financial plan.
• Does not try to be the attorney and give legal advice.
• Is open to learning new ideas and developments.
• Understands and appreciates the need for open discussion among advisors and is respectful of the opinions of other advisors and their unique perspectives.
• Is willing to question other advisors or give contrary input (in private) when something doesn’t appear to be appropriate for a particular client.
• All fees must be transparent.
The following is what we both look for in a CPA:
• Not a “yes” man. We want a CPA who will share an honest opinion and who is willing to say “no” to a client when appropriate.
• On the other hand, we don’t want to work with a CPA who says “no” to everything or tries to be the expert in other disciplines. We want a CPA who respects the opinions of other professionals (especially on matters in their own discipline) and is willing to discuss ideas with an open mind.
• We look for a CPA who is proactive in planning and issue-spotting for clients — and in bringing in other professionals when appropriate — rather than simply reporting a client’s taxes.
• Naturally, we look for a CPA who is willing to be a team player.
Working as a team
In addition to these qualities, it is critical that all team members be committed to following through on assignments, plans and actions.
When advisors have a significant difference of opinion, it is important that they discuss it together in private rather than in front of a client. Although we each owe the ultimate duty of loyalty to the client, we should respect team members by addressing differences with them rather than going behind their backs.
Think about the financial team like you would a basketball team. At first glance, the athletes don’t look that different. As you watch them play as a team, however, you see the different talents and roles each member has on the team. The point guard starts the process and makes the team go. The power forward provides toughness and rebounds. The slashing scorer puts the numbers on the board. But put the ball in the hands of the power forward in the wrong part of the court or ask the point guard to go get all the rebounds, and the results are usually not that successful.
In our experience, it is best for the financial advisor to be the point guard of the team. The point guard typically spends more time talking to the coach (client) and carrying out his or her wishes.
This is how Ray explains it to the client:
• The financial advisor is the go-to person for all financial issues.
• The financial advisor will introduce the client to the other professionals that are needed and help him or her navigate through all of the financial mazes that he or she needs to go through, always with his or her best interest at heart.
• The financial advisor is not charging the client an hourly rate, so he or she can spend a little more time (with less pressure) in gathering information, organizing information, preparing for meetings with the attorney and CPA, and making sure things get done.
• It is important to have three key, trusted advisors working together to help create estate and financial strategies.
Like on the court, each key advisor has an area of experience he or she brings to the table. We don’t believe it is possible for one person to be a knowledgeable professional in more than one of these disciplines. By working together and playing our positions, we create appropriate checks and balances to significantly decrease the chances of any missteps.
This is the winning formula for success in preparing your client for the future, and that’s more important than any other game he or she will play. After all, there is no “I” in team.
Ray Johns, RFC, works for Allegis Financial Partners in Orem, Utah. He started in the life insurance business in 2000, qualified for the MDRT his first year and has been an active member ever since, including qualifying for Court of the Table. He has also qualified every year for the prestigious Century Club. Registered representative of and securities offered through OneAmerica Securities Inc., member FINRA, SIPC, a registered investment advisor. Insurance representatives of America United Life Insurance Company (AUL) and other insurance companies. Allegis Financial Partners is not an affiliate of OneAmerica Securities or AUL and is not a broker-dealer or a registered investment advisor.
Lee S. McCullough III received a master of accountancy degree from Brigham Young University and a Juris Doctorate degree from the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU, where he graduated magna cum laude. In addition to his private law practice, Lee works as an adjunct professor at the law school at BYU and is a former president of the Utah Valley Estate Planning Council. Lee McCullough is not affiliated with Allegis Financial Partners, AUL or OneAmerica Securities.