insight magazine

Inheriting Heirs: How to Hold on to a Client’s Family or Survivors

CPAs often discuss their firm’s succession plans, but what about the smooth succession of your long-time client’s business to their heirs, business partners, and other beneficiaries? By JEFF STIMPSON | Summer 2019


Imagine you’re a tax or financial advisor whose long-time client just died. You’ve never worked closely with the widow or widower — and probably at least one of the surviving children doesn’t know you at all. How do you have — or even start — hard conversations about aging, death, and what to do next, whether that be with a business or an estate? And, maybe more importantly to you, how do you become or remain a trusted and valued advisor to this family?

From a business development perspective, attracting heirs as clients seems important, but it’s also important to have the soft skills to empathize with a family member in that position — especially if your goal is to build a relationship that lasts another lifetime.

“Too often CPAs aren’t proactively bringing this topic up to their clients” amid the chaos of compliance work, says Jason Vanden Bosch, CPA, senior managing director in the Chicago office of CBIZ MHM. “Consider if the CPA’s entire relationship with a client consists of the client showing up once a year to have a tax return prepared, the client may trust the CPA to do a good job filling out tax forms but will generally not trust the CPA with key business or personal decisions or other matters.”

“Most people are concerned with transitioning control of their business over to the next generation or the next group of ownership,” Bosch says. “Our clients have spent years building up their businesses and they won’t easily turn the keys over to someone else, especially when it has financial implications for their future. So, a key factor is figuring out how to have an orderly transition in both control and financial ownership. Topics like this, and the hard discussions that come with them, truly separate value-added CPAs from compliance-oriented CPAs. The CPA needs to show they’re a part of the client’s advisory team and involved in the client’s business and life beyond compliance work.”


Figures vary, but some $30 trillion in wealth is expected to change hands from aging baby boomers to their children or other beneficiaries over the next few decades. That’s a potentially rich prize for CPAs and advisors who are prepared. Consider the following:

• Some two-thirds (and some estimates point to more than 95 percent) of younger investors leave their parents’ financial planners when they inherit wealth. • Many long-time clients’ children feel that their parents’ advisors haven’t established a relationship with them.

• Three-quarters of investors say their children have never met their financial advisors.

• Nearly half of benefactors avoid discussing inheritance plans with their children, many because they don’t want their children to feel entitled to wealth.

Yet, personal succession planning and the related estate and tax planning are big issues for many clients, according to Cory Gallivan, CPA, a principal of Scheffel Boyle in Alton, Ill. Retiring based on the value of assets, tax cost of liquidation of those assets, timing to claim Social Security benefits, and how to pay for health insurance, among other issues, are all things aging clients and their heirs must know how to navigate, Gallivan stresses.

“Health concerns can certainly ignite conversations with heirs on a myriad of topics, including medical directives, power of attorney, burial planning, and legacy planning,” says Dean Mioli, Oaks, Pa.-based director of investment planning for Independent Advisor Solutions by SEI, which has an office in Chicago. “Any communication is far better than no communication, and it can come in various forms — not necessarily face-to-face. The one thing parents don’t want their children to say is that they haven’t been told about their parents’ wishes.”

One initial challenge for CPAs and other advisors is often the lack of communication within a family. “Family members who aren’t involved with the client’s business or financial affairs are probably not taking part in the current crucial decisions and conversations we’re having with our client, so they don’t know the value we are bringing,” Bosch says. “They may know our name in conversation, but they have no experience with us.”

Gallivan points out another challenge: “Family members may have different plans or expectations with the business or assets than their parents did.”

And, of course, there’s the common issue of “quarrelling siblings,” warns Meg Al-Qassas, CPA, a senior manager in the Skokie, Ill. office of MichaelSilver and chair of the Illinois CPA Society’s Taxation Estate, Gift & Trust Committee. In these situations Al- Qassas admits that “we sometimes lose one,” referring to a client’s heir. But, if there’s a conflict of interest in one of these situations, “It may be just as well,” she says.


While CPAs and advisors should note that reaching out to a family member needs prior client approval due to confidentiality, Gallivan says, that a client’s family is often the first to reach out if they see a sign of the client needing help in the future. “The family members would usually call or attend meetings with a parent in those situations. With business clients, it’s common that meetings are held with both generations present.” This is a good opportunity to form relationships with your client’s family or business partners.

“If mom or dad trusts the CPA, it is likely that the children or other family members will put a lot of faith in them as well,” Gallivan suggests.

“In general, if the client is happy with us, this translates to the child and, as they become adults, we try to provide them the level of service that retained their parents,” Al-Qassas says, noting that her firm tries to pair “the kids with staff who are closer to the same point in life to foster a relationship at the generational level.”

Adopting modern tools and tactics also can help advisors accelerate the transition to working with clients’ heirs. Advisory firms often offer financial literacy courses or guidance on investing and taxes for young adults. And as more firms roll out new automation software and cloud-based solutions that free up advisors’ time, more of their focus can go toward bringing value-added services to the complex needs of older clients. Further, adopting virtual practices, like utilizing Skype or other virtual meeting technologies, can help make connecting with clients’ tech-savvy children easier and get them to put a face with an advisors’ name and voice much sooner.

Whichever way you decide to approach the client succession topic, there is one constant tip: Don’t wait.

“Start early and have discussions with your client regarding transition of their business and/or personal financial matters to the next generation. These aren’t decisions that can be made in six months or even a year,” Bosch says. “This will generally involve the older generation slowly giving up control and decision-making authority to the younger. The same is true with personal financial matters — estate planning, trusts, and so on sometimes take a very long time.”

The decision to begin these discussions shouldn’t rest solely with one advisor, either, Mioli suggests. “It may or may not be the CPA’s role to take point on succession planning,” Mioli says. “The financial quarterback should coordinate with the client’s other professionals, such as the CPA and estate planning attorney.”



If you struggle with what to say following the passing of a client or when your client experiences a loss of their own,’s “How to Write a Meaningful Condolence Letter to Your Client” offers this advice to help you reach out during this difficult time:

Acknowledge the loss. “Your condolence letter should open with you acknowledging the loss as you understand it. Depending on the relationship with the client, you could write the letter from a personal point of view as the business owner (using ‘I’ statements) or from your business’ perspective (using ‘we’ statements).”

Express your condolences. “Once you’ve acknowledged the loss your client is experiencing, you should express your condolences. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy or emotional expression — simply iterating your sympathy for your client during this time will be appreciated.”

Discuss the relationship. “Next, it’s appropriate to discuss the relationship you have to the deceased, even if it’s only through your client. You don’t have to have a personal relationship with the deceased to be able to comment on the effects they’ve had in your clients’ or your life.”

Offer assistance. “You may choose to close your condolence letter to your client with an offer to lend assistance, depending on the length and depth of the relationship you’ve built with the client. Including a statement about your willingness to help or provide additional assistance will be appreciated by your client. Chances are, they’ll never call on you for help, but letting them know you’ll be there if they need you is an exercise in building trust and offering meaningful condolences.”

1 comment

Leave a comment
  1. Widya | Jan 02, 2020
    Great article, thanks for sharing this one

    Leave a comment