Shine That Light: Ghosts in Your Client Families

estate planning  word artClients come to us with their version of their life, their finances and their problems; but whenever a new client comes in with a complicated situation, I know there is a ghost lurking in the background. I just never know whether it’s “Casper the Friendly Ghost” or a scary ghost lurking in the attic. I do know that the ghost impacts how a family operates and how they communicate. After 30 years practicing estate planning law, I have learned that if I don’t pay attention to that ghost, any solution I can offer won’t help solve the problem – in fact, it may make the problem even worse. So when I hear the client’s tangled story, I listen to what they don’t say just as much as what they do say. The client may think there’s a legal solution to their problem, but the solution may be much more fundamental.

An Example: The Ghost of Authority

An elderly couple I have represented for ten years came to me with a family dilemma. One of their sons had left the family business a few years earlier to work for a competitor but had since lost that job. He still owned stock in the family business and wanted his old job back. The other children in the business did not want him back, so the parents came to me to find out what his legal remedies were and how they could facilitate a solution.

A red flag went up when I heard that he was no longer working in their company but still owned stock. Another red flag went up when I heard he had been let go by the competitor. The parents were divided. The mother felt he should not be allowed back into the family business, because he chose to leave it and because the other children did not want him back. The father did not take a position and remained quiet. He had been in charge of the family business for many years, and although not currently active full time, he still owned stock in the business. The family respected him and to them, he remained the authority figure.

The parents asked if they could come in with the children to discuss the issues, and I agreed. The son was suspicious of the meeting and did not attend.

During that meeting the children told me emphatically that their brother was trouble while he worked there. He was a know-it-all and difficult to get along with. He left for more money when their company was struggling, and under no circumstances did they want him back. They had two main issues: a) they wanted him to sell his stock back to them, and b) it didn’t matter what they said, since unless their father took a stand with them, the brother would believe he still had a chance to come back. The father felt badly that his son was having financial trouble, and wouldn’t come out and say that he couldn’t rejoin the business. It became clear that this was not a sandbox I could or should be in. I represented the parents and this was not an issue that dealt with them directly.

I saw the ghost and it was the ghost of authority. The father no longer had the authority he once had, but it was enough to keep the game in suspense. Everyone was waiting for him to act, but his age and his switch from business to fatherly concerns had benched him and it was unlikely he was ever going to get back in the game. The family was stuck and no legal mechanism would unstick it.

I referred the family to a psychologist who worked with the father, the children in the business and the son who sought re-entry. He was able to put the ghost of authority in the light and facilitate family communication, which led to an acceptable resolution. The son was cashed out and is now otherwise employed. The family still speaks to each other and they will spend holidays together. Although the parents came to me for legal guidance this was not a legal dilemma.

As advisors, we need to be aware of what we know and what we don’t know. We need to read between lines – look for clues as to where the ghosts lurk, knowing that well-meaning clients will say just what they think is acceptable. They may not share the full story, and they may not be in a place where they can address the underlying issues. As seasoned advisors we must be able take the helicopter view, take a step back, and assess how best to shine the light on them.

Patricia Annino is a sought after speaker and nationally recognized authority on women and estate planning. She educates and empowers women to value themselves and their contributions in order to ACCOMPLISH GREAT THINGS in the world – and in so doing PROTECT THEMSELVES, those they love, and the organizations they care about. Annino recently released an updated version of her successful book, Women and Money: A Practical Guide to Estate Planning to include recent changes in the laws that govern how we protect our assets during and beyond our lifetime. To download Annino’s FREE eBook, Estate Planning 101 visit,


  1. Krystal says:

    This is a great post and one that I’m sure many in estate planning can relate to. It’s so important to take the “helicopter view” as you said and find out what else may be contributing to the situation.

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