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Adviser insight: Cultivate control for clients with cancer

Cashing in products may be more appropriate than buying them for people with cancer, and an adviser’s most important skills will be listening and helping clients to keep control of their lives, says George Emsden of in2 Consulting.

If there is one word that defines my approach to people who have cancer or any terminal illness it is listening. I will not sell any products – just enable sufferers to make the best of what they have and keep it as simple as possible.

My financial planning exercise for people with cancer is in three parts:

1. How much do they have in terms of assets? This is everything they own including pension funds, policies less any liabilities. 

2. How long have they got to live? The doctors have given that information.

3. What do they want to do now? This puts the ball back in their court. It’s a bit like coaching.

Keeping up appearances

People with cancer can be very brave but often are keeping up appearances in public – in private they will open up if they trust you. They can be far more open in writing. There are many stories on the Macmillan Cancer Support website (you will have to register) in which people bare everything. For example: ‘My dad/mum isn’t coping, what do I do? How do I get benefits, care etc.’

My first reaction after being diagnosed with cancer was to keep it quiet. However, a couple of networking friends suggested I do the opposite and it has been quite cathartic for me.

I now do financial planning for people with cancer as a niche. One of my former colleagues once asked me why I was doing mortgages. ‘You care about people,’ he said. ‘Get involved with IHT and long term care.’ But I didn’t do much business there.

A pet hate of mine is platitudes – although I use them occasionally, I hate saying things just for the sake of it. My blog and podcast are about doing something practical and giving people back some control, at least for a while. The scary thing about getting old or seriously ill is the loss of control. Maintaining control is the basic philosophy of financial planning – maintaining control while you are healthy, when you are ill with the best protection you can get, or when you do not work.

Keeping in control

A sub-heading for this piece might be ‘keeping control’ because that is what it is about. In this sense, my work fits in with the current interest in financial planning, using for example the George Kinder approach.

Emotionally, a cancer diagnosis can make people feel they have been hit by a train, creating anger, resentment (why me?) and in this state they are probably not going to make rational decisions. This takes me back to listening. You have to admire people who face up to life of a few months.

What helped me cope with my illness was the courage and dignity of my parents who’d had cancer, and several family members, including two cousins, who died of cancer at age 48, the same age at which my mother died. Seeing this courage gave me a little voice in the back of my head telling me not to let the side down if my turn came.

First cancer case

My first case of dealing with a client with cancer was before my own diagnosis. My call to the client was about his paid-up executive pension plans but within one minute he told me he’d had most of a brain tumour removed. I asked: ‘How long have you got?’ I told him he didn’t have to say if he didn’t want to. His answer, that 50% of people with the same condition die within 12-18 months, was direct and delivered without emotion.

In his early 40s, the idea of an annuity and tax-free cash seemed ridiculous at best and obscene at worst. But getting the funds paid out to him in cash took much longer than planned. Even then it only happened after wresting control of the file from an efficient administrator.

Vulnerable clients

People with cancer are vulnerable. Alarm bells would ring if I felt they did not understand what I was saying, and in my approach to vulnerable clients I freely admit to paranoia. Fortunately, the choice I offer to clients is simple: Do you want your money tied up in a pension or in cash in your bank account?

My biggest worry? I hope some smart arse doesn’t try to turn this into a wheeze for getting pensions paid out in cash and tax-free.

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