Background as an undertaker led to specialty in estate planning

par Rosemary McCracken | March 17 2014 08:43PM

Greg Barnsdale is uniquely qualified when it comes to helping his clients arrange their end-of-life affairs. He’s a certified financial planner with a specialty in estate planning and a certified executor advisor. He’s also a licensed funeral director.Mr. Barnsdale entered the funeral industry at the age of 18 while he was still in high school, taking a part-time job at a funeral home in Beaverton, Ont. After graduation, he entered the two-year funeral service program at Humber College in Toronto, then spent several years working as an undertaker at funeral homes in Ontario. In 1996, he moved into financial services as a junior financial planner at Manulife Financial in Barrie, Ont.

“I needed a career change,” Mr. Barnsdale, 49, said in a telephone interview from Calgary where he and his business, Finacy – a name he coined by combining the words “final” and “legacy” – are now based. “My father was an investment advisor, so I’d had some exposure to financial services.”

Family discord

As a funeral director, he’d seen first-hand the pitfalls of not properly planning for the inevitable final exit. He warns that family discord can result when wills, power of attorney arrangements and even funeral arrangements are not in place at the time of death. “I’ve witnessed a fist-fight at a funeral,” he said. “We’ve all heard similar stories that result from greed and family tensions, but these horrors are entirely preventable.”

With his background, it was almost a given that, as a financial planner, he would pay particular attention to his clients’ estate planning needs. He’s extended his mission to educating the public to plan the legacies they want to be remembered for. He spearheaded the formation of the Estate Planning Council of Simcoe County, which provides pre-active estate-planning information to the public, and became its first president. And he’s worked with funeral, legal and accounting professionals to assist with end-of-life planning.

While some people are eager to get their affairs in order during their lifetimes, “as a society, we still have a long way to go,” Mr. Barnsdale said. “Some people would rather not think about dying. And there is often the complication of blended families that makes them want to put the whole thing off – which only creates anxiety.”

Common mistakes in drawing up wills, he said, include do-it-yourself wills. “There are templates for wills available on the internet,” he noted, “but clients should seek proper legal advice for the contents of their wills. It’s a mistake not to spend money on this.”

Another mistake, he said, is not naming guardians for underage children in the will.

And glaring inequalities in bequests, such as leaving financial and real estate assets to sons but not daughters, will almost inevitably result in family discord, Mr. Barnsdale added. “Advising on this can be a delicate business, especially with clients from cultural backgrounds in which this is a norm. Try to put these clients in touch with an estate-planning lawyer.”

Proper estate planning goes beyond wills, and financial planners can be a valuable resource for clients and their families in getting everything in order. A solution to preventing fist-fights at funerals is open family communication well before a funeral. “Secrecy is not an option,” Mr. Barnsdale said. “A professionally mediated family conference will bring issues to light, such as who gets grandfather’s clock, and help resolve them. Funeral arrangements should be openly discussed in advance. The client needs to write down exactly what he or she wants—and many people today don’t want traditional funerals with both service and visitation. Also keep in mind that pre-arranged funerals will guarantee the costs in today’s dollars.”

And some financial planners may not be comfortable with end-of-life planning. “A surprising number of us haven’t got things in place for ourselves,” he noted. “Older advisors are probably used to talking about the need for life insurance with clients, but they will need to deepen these discussions for proper end-of-life planning.”

He suggested that both seasoned and younger advisors join their local estate planning council and attend its meetings that focus on various estate-planning topics and estate settlement issues.

Reduce liability risk

“They can also look to the companies they work with to educate them on the intricacies of estate planning,” he said. “Many insurance companies have estate-planning specialists on staff.”

Thorough estate planning means having a network of professionals to work with, such as lawyers who specialize in drawing up wills, insurance specialists and accountants for estate tax planning. “This will provide clients with valuable expertise,” Mr. Barnsdale said. “It will also reduce your risk of liability.”

He suggested financial professionals develop the skills to deal with families in mourning. Upon the death of a client’s relative or the client himself, “don’t let your own discomfort prevent you from acknowledging the death and attending the funeral,” he said. “Let the client or the family know that you have information that will be important in settling the estate. And consider making a charitable donation in memory of the deceased.”

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