Our industry often focuses on strong documentation as the most effective firewall against family feuds. While a thorough paper trail will undeniably help lead to a positive outcome, there are a number of strategies that an advisor can use to influence their clients and hopefully avoid disaster.

An empowered advisor with highly sophisticated defusion techniques is essential to helping a family avoid conflicts that could cost them millions of dollars.


Remind the Family of Their Roots

One of the most effective defusion techniques is to rebuild the link or emotional relationship between the benefactor who has passed and the offspring. It's especially useful if an advisor knew the benefactor, helped him or her create the estate plan, and feels emotionally connected to carrying out the wishes of the benefactor beyond the grave. We have found that the advisor in these cases is vastly more empowered as an instrument of the benefactor.

Whether an advisor knew the benefactor or not, drawing the line to the source gives the advisor the power to navigate these choppy waters and defuse family feuds. No matter what most beneficiaries may say, deep inside is a connection to their predecessor, either by love, reputation or a desire to emulate them.

In addition, an advisor can eliminate negative interactions between siblings, alleviate disputes over consumption and help reconnect them to their family history.

Using proper defusion techniques, an advisor creates more effective language and helps focus advocacy on the goal of conveying an atmosphere of balance and agreement. It will remind the family of the advisor's strong relationship with the benefactor and help prevent personal attacks and criticism.

To make a personal connection, an advisor may want to say something like, “Jane, I can see that this is really important to you. Your grandfather wanted nothing more than for all of you to be taken care of for the rest of your life. This feuding violates his intention for you."

"He was very clear about wanting you and those that come after you to be taken care of forever. Let's see if we can work together and do some creative problem solving so that all of you can win."


Validate the Family's Perspective

It is important for advisors to be flexible in all things. An advisor can say, “I can see how you feel. Coming from your position this makes sense. I understand that this must be very difficult for you."

Making it clear to family members that they are understood is a powerful defusion technique.

Then an advisor can say, “Your father was attempting to avoid conflict between all of you. What he would want is for you to resolve this amicably."

"You may not get everything you have imagined but you are getting something and giving up something so everyone will be able to 'save face' and move forward."

To resolve a dispute like this, everyone needs to feel like they win.


Set a Reasonable Pace

It's equally important for an advisor to take care of himself or herself in these meetings. We advise, for example, not holding continual eye contact to avoid coming away feeling drained. Take breaks, for everyone's benefit.

If an advisor calls his or her own form of "time out," it may help to defuse emotion. In this context, we suggest that he or she creates a bit of space at meetings by gazing down and taking notes. It gives an advisor distance, and prevents the beneficiary from pulling on him or her emotionally.

In every meeting, an advisor should get one agreement on at least one thing, even if it's small. Getting heads nodding in the right direction will set the stage for the second agreement and the third, and so on.

An advisor should refocus the client continually about what is really at stake. Consider the perfect moment to ask the following question: “At the end of your life, would you like your sister holding your hand with beautiful memories or would you like money in your hand? Perhaps you can have both."


It's Not Just What You Say, It's How You Say It

In human communication, there is what you mean to communicate and then there is how you are coming across. This is called the "subtext." Your words can be saying "I want this" or "I want that," while your tone, pitch and body language could be saying, “You idiot, I'm not listening to you!"

The wrong subtext can make other people angry or defensive and cause them shut down. Their limbic brain gets activated and they move into a fighting or defensive stance. They can no longer hear what is being said.

An advisor must work to find a way for everyone to “save face," by creating a way for them to be right about something. It will give them a sense of winning, so they can forgive and let old wounds heal.

Keep the conversation ongoing and open. In that context, solutions will be found. Also, advocate non-attachment, which is the ability to truly let go. As human beings, we can inadvertently feed off the drama. Yet when we learn to let things go it can help us transition through life's changes.

Remember: It's About the Relationship

Always remember that the gold standard isn't just the documentation, it's the relationship. By leveraging the relationship, advisors and clients alike can have the power to unspool the anger, find the open road and to keep it open right through to resolution. The advisor will see a job well done, and the family will be forever grateful.

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