Abby Schneiderman, co-founder of Everplans, understands the importance of estate planning—all too well. She was still in the midst of developing her start-up—which offers a digital archive to place all the information loved ones may need to know in the event of a tragedy—when her brother unexpectedly died in a car accident.
The amount of information that needs to be known by the next of kin, or those who are taking over someone's assets and estate, can seem endless, and it can extend far beyond expected funeral-planning details. What type of medicine does the cat take? Who is the gardener? What bills need to be paid immediately?
"It's a critical area that is being left behind," Schneiderman said.
No financial advisor enjoys starting the "end of life" conversation. Many clients, likewise, find the conversation to be so uncomfortable they'd rather avoid it. But many financial advisors are coming around to the philosophy that this is an unavoidable aspect of their business.
"The industry has evolved to the point that the relationship that really good advisors have with their clients goes far beyond financial projections and planning," said Matt Lynch, managing partner at financial services consulting firm Strategy & Resources. "It's become about really planning how to make financial decisions when events come up and during periods of transition, such as the end of life and what happens to your money after you're gone," he said.
Blane Warrene, CEO of QuonWarrene, a technology consultant to financial advisors, also learned from personal experience that dealing head-on with the subject of a client's death will avoid more problems than the difficult conversation creates.
Warrene's family experienced a situation where a family member passed away, and even though the person left access to their will and insurance policies, they did not leave the key to their safe deposit box. Warrene's family had to spend a lot of time in the court system and in probate to find out how to access the box. "It was an eye-opening exercise," he said. No one wants to be battling things out in court at a time when they are also grieving the loss of their loved ones.
Many financial advisors already discuss with clients the need to draw up a will, update beneficiaries and understand the types of long-term care and life insurance policies that are available. While these are crucial planning elements, they are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to end-of-life issues that advisors can address with clients, including health care wishes, power of attorney and burial or funeral plans.
Critically, clients need to make sure that all of this information is readily accessible to the people who will need to see it.
The cost of not taking control of these decisions? Consider this: More than $1 billion dollars in life insurance policies have gone unclaimed by individuals unaware they have been named as beneficiaries.
That's where start-ups like Everplans, co-founded by Schneiderman and Adam Seifer, come in. It's a reason why Warrene has been recommending to his advisor clients that they encourage clients to use an online vault system to store all of their pertinent information, including health-care directives, estate plans and various other documents from attorneys and accountants. He has also been conducting due diligence on Everplans.
Everplans has created a new platform for financial advisors to offer a "life after death" digital archive to clients. The platform is co-branded with the advisor's name so it can be pitched as a proprietary tool to clients.
The Everplans platform provides users with a personalized dashboard and online storage vault where they can upload copies of documents in an organized fashion. It also provides checklists for end-of-life planning and educational resources on related subjects, such as state-by-state guidelines on advance directives, probate and organ donation. The platform invites users to designate a deputy or deputies who will get full access to the account after that person dies, or at a specified time beforehand. The deputy can then access the information from any Internet-connected device.
Massey Quick, a $3 billion registered investment advisor, has been placing more emphasis on end-of-life planning with its clients in the past few years. "As strong as we like to think we are on the investment side, the planning side is just so important from a number of perspectives, so we are working hard to put in place tools and have conversations with clients," said Joseph Belfatto, managing partner.
"I think there is a real need out there for something like this," he added. "Everyone struggles with the amount of technology and passwords and information out there. It's rare that people have everything accessible and in one place."
Everplans Professional, the version that is made available to financial advisors, estate planners and insurance agents, charges an annual subscription fee of $2,500 a year. The fee allows advisors to offer a co-branded version of the product to up to 200 clients. Group rates are negotiable for advisors who have a small client base, Schneiderman said. (The individual version of the product charges $75 annually.)
Advisors are able to track clients' completion of tasks and will soon be able to populate their clients' plans with additional documents and information. Users can choose to leave as long of a trail as thy like—from passwords and social media accounts to instructions on how to care for a pet, the location of the title deed to the car and even recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation and personal letters for loved ones.
"Everplans puts a new twist on the online vault system by wrapping workflow around it to fill in the gaps," Warrene of QuonWarrene said. "From my perspective, connecting these vault capabilities to the advisor's workflow is key in ensuring one has a clear, ready-to-go set of steps for end-of-life issues."
The market for digital vault products targeting the advisor market is a recent trend, but there are many offerings designed for individuals, including Principled Heart and AfterSteps.
Lynch at Strategy & Resources said the option to direct a client to the individual offering or take control as an advisor is an advantage of the Everplans platform. "An advisor can introduce you to Everplans to use on your own or provide it to you through a subscription and hand it off, only giving help when you request it," Lynch said. "It's a tool I can use to engage in the conversation with clients and encourage them to think through the process and help them, without crossing the line and getting too personal."
There are also many options for advisors online that allow clients to store documents "in the cloud," but Belfatto said Massey Quick is currently evaluating Everplans and considering offering the product to its clients because of its focus.
Massey Quick currently uses eMoney Advisor, a financial-planning software (recently acquired by Fidelity Investments) for a co-branded platform called MQ Money that helps clients create financial plans and consolidate their financial information. Users can store important financial and account documents, copies of passports and insurance policies in a digital vault. But Belfatto thinks Everplans may provide a nice complement to eMoney for clients to organize and store all of their end-of-life documents.
"They take it to the extreme when talking about your legacy and your wishes, but it makes you ask the question and think about whether you have put all those things in place," Belfatto said. "And if you haven't ... hopefully it's a call to action." Belfatto added that while it may seem counterintuitive, all of the digital products allow advisors to "get closer to clients."
Wealth management firm The Creative Planners Group uses the MoneyGuidePro software to help its clients with financial-planning needs. But Michael Sander, vice president, said it does not go as deep as Everplans in terms of end-of-life planning. "We realized we needed to really make end-of-life planning part of the practice and that we were missing the boat."
As life gets more complicated and busy, planning for the end of life can often be the last thing on a client's mind, Sander said. That is where the advisor can step in. But knowing how and when to push clients to talk about and take care of the most pertinent end-of-life issues will remain tricky business for many advisors.
"The problem with end-of-life discussions is that no one wants to talk about it, and for good reason," Sander said. "No one wants to talk about dying, but it's important so that there are no surprises and so that people's wishes are carried out."
Sander cautioned that the process can be time-consuming for both client and advisor. "It can be a two-hour-plus meeting," he said.
—By Leslie Kramer, special to CNBC.com