Much has been made of the massive generational wealth transfer, from aging baby boomers to their millennial and Gen Z children, that's coming over the next several decades. But in some quarters this $30 trillion exchange is being met with a lot of hand wringing. As big as the transfer is, there's an equally well-known statistic that usually accompanies any discussion of intergenerational wealth: Two-thirds of heirs fire their parents' financial advisors shortly after they receive an inheritance, according to an InvestmentNews survey. Why?
"Many of those inheriting children — they're not children anymore — they already have established relationships with financial advisors on their own and they're quite comfortable with those relationships," said Kendra Thompson, managing director with Accenture's Wealth Management practice. When it comes to inherited windfalls, it "should not be taken for granted by any advisor that they'll be able to keep that money," she added.
Forward-looking practices are retooling their businesses, recognizing that tomorrow's clients have different priorities and preferences than their parents did. And they're addressing everything from their hiring decisions to their fee structures and their technology use.
By most accounts, baby boomers are expected to live a long life, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and others. And with their hard-charging reputation, many are not likely to be content sitting in a rocking chair on their front porch watching the world go by.
"I think this whole wealth transfer debate is much ado about nothing," said Gabriel Garcia, managing director at Pershing Advisor Solutions. "Baby boomers are planning for a long life, and they have plans for what they want to do with [their money]: traveling the world, philanthropic causes and so on."
According to the CDC report, baby boomers can also expect to be dealing with a host of chronic health conditions as they age, without the benefit of robust health insurance.
Consider this: Seventeen percent of people 75 and older suffer from dementia, as do 37 percent of those over 85, and people can suffer with the illness up to 20 years, according to the Alzheimer's Association. It's not hard to see how those inheritances will quickly get eroded by health and long-term care before they have a chance to pass down to the next generation.
What's more, even when there is an inheritance, it's often dispersed among multiple heirs. A $1 million estate doesn't amount to a lot for an advisor to manage per client if it's distributed among several children and grandchildren.
"If you're hyper-focused on the death watch of boomers and the transfer of wealth, that's probably a failed strategy," Garcia said.
The problem for many advisors is that they haven't made an investment in younger clients, starting with the children of their clients. Many don't have a strategy for courting younger, less affluent clients.
"You can't expect to walk in and say, 'This is what your parents had, and this is how I'll manage your money,'" said John Anderson, managing director of the Practice Management Solutions unit of SEI Investments.
Accenture's Thompson is more blunt. "If you're talking with the children for the first time after their parent have died, you've missed the boat," she said.
But it may be hard for an advisor who is often the same age as the parents — in fact, the average financial advisor is just over 50 — to establish a rapport with someone 20 or 30 years younger.
"Sometimes, when an older advisor tries to have a relationship with the younger generation, it may be perceived as not being authentic," said Douglas Boneparth, 33, a certified financial planner and president of Bone Fide Wealth.
But that doesn't mean that advisors can't make it work.
First, they could be looking to hire younger advisors. At present, just 22 percent of advisors are under age 40. In addition, firms may also need to rethink their compensation structure and make it affordable for younger clients and profitable for themselves.
"We're seeing a growing percentage of firms charging hourly, retainer or value-based fees," said Pershing's Garcia.
Another trend is modular planning, allowing clients to pick and choose the services they want instead of presenting them with a package. "Your younger clients may not need all that comprehensive planning that occurs in the boomer world," said SEI Investments' Anderson.
And some advisors, such as Boneparth of Bone Fide Wealth, said they are laying the seeds now to reap the rewards later. "Until someone is planning-ready, I'll give them all the free content on my site, talk to them about some things they can do," he said. "That takes me 30 minutes of my time, but in three to five years they'll be back as a client because they remember all the work you put in.
"I'm playing the long game," he added.
To propel a practice into the future, technology must play a central role.
On the front end, younger clients — let's admit it: everyone — expect financial advisors to have easy-to-use, intuitive and transparent client interfaces, including seamless onboarding and up-to-the-minute portfolio positions.
"Clients are coming with their Amazon experience, their Apple experience, their social media experiences, and they're expecting that from advisors," said Pershing's Garcia.
Technology can also be leveraged behind the scenes to help service younger clients and make them profitable, said Thompson. Data analytics can provide insights into client behaviors that can help advisors target the clients that might need a bit more handholding or a nudge to take action.
Will all these efforts make a difference? It's too soon to tell. But few advisors want to take the risk of losing assets when their clients die.
— By Ilana Polyak, special to CNBC.com