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The Act 2 Column: How to help grieving families settle an estate

For those professionals who are helping a family

For those professionals who are helping a family settle an estate, it's important to exercise compassion while dealing with clients grieving the death of their loved one. Credit: iStock

Last year, about two weeks after my father died, I wrote about the process of settling an estate. At the time, I didn't realize how much time and work the process would take, but four months later, I have to admit that it became a part-time job.

The experience has been sobering -- I have been like the doctor who suddenly becomes a patient. Only after living through the health care system can the doctor appreciate just how awful it can be for the patient. So, too, for this former investment adviser, who has become the client. Now, I am the one who is forced to read through reams of unfamiliar paperwork, respond to countless requests for information and deal with financial professionals who, while well-intentioned, often miss the mark.

For those professionals who are helping a family settle an estate, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Do not talk about losing your relative. If you are about to say, "When my father died," stop yourself. I know you are just trying to be nice, but talking about your loss is not helpful. These types of comments often occurred when my mother would get weepy and the professional felt the need to say something. Please know that there is no need to utter a word, but if you must, you can just say, "I am so sorry this is so hard." That's it.

Provide a one-page checklist to help guide the client through the proces. Most executors and trustees are thrown into unfamiliar territory when dealing with an estate. They often don't know what the process involves. So, after the initial meeting, it would be helpful to follow up with a checklist of what will happen. Because I had been an adviser, I knew the ropes, but there were times where I was drawing flow charts for my sister and mother to help explain the progression of events.

When you or your firm has made a mistake, admit it, apologize and move on. Settling an estate is an administrative hassle, and there are bound to be mistakes. As a client, all I want is for you to quickly admit to the mistake and to apologize, so we can move on. There is nothing more exasperating to a client than to hear "it's not a big deal."

If you are talking to the surviving spouse, know that he or she may not be able to absorb what you are saying.

My mother is a smart and competent woman, but I notice that in the aftermath of my father's death, it can sometimes be tough for her to stay focused on details. If you are discussing a legal, accounting or investment issue, be prepared to repeat what you are saying at a later date. (For this reason, I recommend that a family member accompany the survivor to as many of these meetings as possible.)

Understand that transitions can be difficult. For 52 years, my parents had a nifty division of labor. My mother managed the day-to-day aspects of the household and paid every bill, while my father took care of the investments and taxes. As I sat with my mother in the accountant's office, he was so wonderful, taking the time to explain some of the details of the return and what information he needed her to gather. I was especially grateful every time he would pause and look at her and say, "Does that sound OK to you?"

In these types of situations, I can't stress enough the importance of working with professionals with whom you feel comfortable so you can feel free to ask questions and who can respond to your needs with professional care and human compassion.

If you do not have such a relationship, you should know there are plenty of terrific folks out there who can help you out.

Jill Schlesinger is editor-at-large for She welcomes emailed comments and questions.

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