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Stories That Will Inspire Action

I am a very private person. I do not share information about my weight, my aches and pains, or my worries. Most of all, I never share problems about my family and friends. However, I need to clarify that I also don’t share these things with my friends or family.

You probably will think I am speaking out of both sides of my mouth when I confide that I do share stories about my family and friends with clients. I do this for a very good reason. When my clients understand that I am human and that I face the same troubles they do, it builds trust. When I tell my stories to illustrate a point, they “get it.” Let me give you a few examples from my world.

When I speak with clients and their families about the benefits available to help them if they need assistance at home, in assisted living or in a nursing home, I tell them about my mother-in-law, May. May lived with my wife and me for more than 35 years. In her later years, she suffered a number of strokes. As a result, it became risky for her to stay at home alone all day – she might fall and she sometimes forgot when she turned on the stove.

Luckily, she was able to stay at home because our firm was familiar with a Department of Veterans Affairs benefit called Aid & Attendance. Even though May’s husband, Fred, was a World War II veteran who passed away over 40 years before she needed assistance, she was able to take a survivor’s benefit because of his service. Because of this benefit, we were able to obtain a helper who stopped by every day during the week to make sure May was all right. The helper often prepared lunch for May and drove her to the mall.

What do my clients learn from this story? First, they learn that I care about family. (My mother-in-law lived with us for years.) Second, they learn that I know what they are going through in their lives (dealing with the strokes, worrying about a loved one’s safety). Third, they figure out that I know how to help them with the knowledge our firm applies to their situation.

As an elder law attorney, I often consult with families about planning ahead to prevent a catastrophic illness requiring long-term care from devastating their life savings. In Ohio, it often takes five years before the planning is effective. This is a long time, particularly when people are in their 80s or 90s.

Without going into all of the details of this planning here, I will share my approach. I begin by telling my clients that I believe planning is important and, what’s more, I have done the same thing for myself. I tell them that my wife and I have long-term care insurance and our health is good. I tell them how I set up my plan involving my daughter as a helper when she was really not ready to take on the responsibility. Under the circumstances, why did I do this planning?  Because it’s never too early to get the five-year clock started. I ask my clients: How old will you be in five years?  What is the chance that you might begin to have health issues that will require special assistance? If I told you that it takes five years to plan, when should you start? Almost all will reply “yesterday.”

What does this story tell my clients?  Most certainly, it tells them that I walk the talk. They understand that I have done this myself. That is powerful.

Another tricky situation we deal with regularly involves clients’ children who may not be ready to take on the responsibility of an inheritance. This is a difficult situation. For some clients, I tell a story about my uncle who worked in the steel mills for many years. My uncle made good money as a steelworker, but he had a quandary. He loved his daughter and son, and they were “good” kids. However, his daughter was terrible at handling money and his son was terrible at handling women. My uncle was worried that his daughter’s lack of money savvy would lead to his hard-earned money going down a black hole. He also was not eager to have his hard-earned money going to one of his son’s exes.

So we decided to set up a special pension-like trust for each of his children. In this way, they would always have an income to fall back on after he was gone.  Also, they would have less money at risk at one time because they would receive a monthly check instead of a lump-sum payment.

Here was a way to relate to clients who have similar problems in their own families. As I tell the story, the clients are often nodding their heads, agreeing that this makes sense. Instead of discussing the trust mechanics, instead of talking in generalities, clients relate to a simple story that tells them what the problem is, how the solution solved the problem and generally how it works. The clients understand. This builds trust.

Here is one last situation in which a good story can illustrate a point. In our practice, we urge our clients to specify their wishes regarding their funerals. Most people do not want to discuss with their families which casket they prefer, whether they want to be buried or cremated, or what type of ceremony they would prefer.

I tell clients that the reason I believe it is important to do this advance planning is based on a personal experience in which advance planning did not happen. My wife’s aunt lived with us for about 10 years. She had completed her estate planning, but she never discussed nor planned her funeral wishes. One day, Aunt Marie woke up, sat down to eat her breakfast and died. It was sudden and unexpected. She had never been ill a single day.

Unfortunately, we had no idea whether she preferred to be buried or cremated.  We did not know where she wanted to be buried. Further, some long-out-of-touch relatives suddenly appeared on the scene, trying to interject their preferences for her funeral. It was a mess! From that point forward, I have made it a priority to make sure my clients and their families never have to face a similar situation.

This story illustrates to my clients the need for preplanning and the all-too-real results of doing nothing. None of us want to leave a mess for our families. Again, the story is easy to follow and will most likely be food for thought as clients make their decisions about whom to work with for their estate planning.

Tell your clients what you believe. Tell them what you value. Give them stories and examples from your life or from your practice that illustrate why the strategy you are suggesting for them is important. Tell them how the strategy will work for them, pointing back to the related stories. You will find that your clients and prospects will understand better and will choose to follow you because they understand.


Thomas Cooper, CELA, is the founder of the law firm Cooper, Adel and Associates, with offices in four locations in Ohio. He is one of only 22 attorneys in Ohio certified as Elder Law Specialists by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF). He may be contacted at [email protected] .

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