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The right words at the right time

By Warren Brooks and John Shull, ChFC

Losing a loved one is never easy. First Command Financial Advisors are committed to providing proactive and compassionate support to their bereaved clients. We follow a meticulous yet caring approach to this sensitive aspect of personal service– an approach developed over decades and incorporated into the training of all new recruits.

Now two of our top advisors – Warren Brooks and John Shull – have teamed up to share their views on this critically important issue with the rest of the financial services industry. Following are excerpts from “Helping Bereaved Clients Face the Future,” an article they co-wrote for GAMA International Journal, a magazine for leaders in the financial services industry.

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In hearing that a client has lost a loved one, most financial planners tell the person something like, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do during this difficult time.” Often, this conversation takes place three to four weeks after the funeral, and the client is caught up in inaction and indecision, with family members, creditors and well-meaning friends all offering conflicting advice and assistance.

In our years as financial advisors, we’ve discovered a more direct way to assist clients during bereavement. Our method not only lends credibility to our offer of assistance, but also provides real help to clients during all phases of recovery, which can take years.

Clients who are close to their advisors and see us three to four times a year might call us on the actual day of their loss or a few days before it’s anticipated. After appropriate condolences and genuine offers of assistance, the first thing we ask bereaved clients is whether they have found a funeral home to assist with preparations. If not, we’ll offer the name of one that might be convenient for them. Often, we’ll also offer to make any calls on the client’s behalf.

In doing this, we are offering real assistance with a task many people have never done before, probably dread and may be emotionally unable to perform. Frequently, we are able to save our clients money on products or services they may not need but feel they must get during this emotionally charged time.

For example, bereaved clients often feel they must honor the recently deceased by getting the best casket for their loved one. Such decisions are often made in the fog that accompanies a devastating loss. While a casket typically retails for around $2,000, they can be priced at more than 10 times that. The truth is there’s a wide range of costs for a casket, but they’re all designed to do the same thing. We let clients know that purchasing an average-priced casket isn’t a reflection of their love.

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The most common behavior of bereaved clients is indecision and, as a result, inaction. We help here by offering to stop by a client’s home with a simple to-do list of practical steps they may need to take after a loss.

In the first few weeks after a loss, clients, especially elderly ones, are not ready to face the world outside their home. Their devastation, even when an illness was long-term, runs deep. Stopping by with a short list of key things they need to do can help refocus clients and nudge them past their darkest moments.

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We start the planning process with Social Security for clients aged 60 and over, or who have dependent or disabled children, because it can have the greatest impact on quality of life. Also, the entitlement changes may take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to take effect.

We personally schedule the appointment date for our clients and take them to the Social Security office. This usually results in more attentive service while giving the client firsthand knowledge of what his or her entitlement will be. Sometimes when we’ve taken a client to the Social Security office, the benefits consultant there thinks we’re either the client’s bodyguard or an attorney. Either way, we get very good service.

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Clients often face a flood of irreversible choices – such as converting military retirement pay to federal pension benefits or moving thrift savings plan and 401(k) dollars to traditional IRA rollover accounts. We ask clients to bring in all material related to their death benefits package.

We then sort through all of the paperwork together, calling the relevant government agencies to be sure we’re doing things right. Sometimes, we’ll call an agency so often that the employees there get to know our voices and come to appreciate our direct involvement.

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As the to-do list gets whittled down, we may ask an estate planning attorney to meet with our client to discuss the current disposition of their estate and to explain ways the client might reduce future probate, administrative and legal costs at the time of his or her death.

Even when the estate is not large or complex, some level of basic planning may be needed, such as revised wills, durable powers of attorney, advanced medical directives and living wills for a surviving spouse.

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Our client may be ready at the six- to nine-month mark to begin discussing a longer-range plan. The timing here will vary greatly, depending on state jurisdiction, probate laws, size of the gross estate and, most important, the client’s readiness.

When we think clients are ready, we show them what they need to do to sustain a projected level of income and lifestyle. We have them revisit goals and values they may have had before the loss of their loved one. Are those goals and values still desired and achievable? The process is intended to be positive and uplifting and help the client begin creating a new plan for the next stage in their life.


Warren Brooks has spent 11 years as a First Command Financial Advisor. He is located in Lexington Park, Md. Warren has been named First Command’s Advisor of the Year for the past three years. Before joining the company, he spent 24 years in the U.S. Navy.

John Shull, ChFC, has been a First Command Financial Advisor and District Advisor for nine years. He is located in Annapolis, Md. In 2010, John received GAMA’s Leadership Team Award. His previous work experiences include 21 years in the U.S. Army.


  • Contact and visit the local Social Security office to learn about any changes to your entitlement.
  • Apply for any Social Security benefits.
  • Make a list of all financial assets. (In addition to stocks and bonds, bank assets and annuities, this may include real estate, business property, second homes, small-business property and property held in trusts.)
  • Reregister ownership on life insurance policies, IRAs, vehicles and homes.
  • Contact federal state and corporate employer benefits centers to ensure no entitlements or other benefits are overlooked.
  • Notify the Department of Veteran Affairs if veterans benefits are involved.
  • Register the will at the courthouse if estate planning requirements in your state and estate size and content call for it.
  • Consider consulting an attorney for legal assistance.

First Command Financial Services, Inc. is the parent company of First Command Financial Planning, Inc. (Member SIPC, FINRA) and First Command Bank (Member FDIC). Financial planning services and investment products, including securities products are offered by First Command Financial Planning, Inc. Insurance products and services are offered by First Command Financial Services, Inc. Banking products and services are offered by First Command Bank. Securities products are not FDIC insured, have no bank guarantee and may lose value. In certain states, First Command Financial Services, Inc. is a separately registered domestic corporation and does business in California as “First Command Insurance Services.” A financial plan, by itself, cannot assure that retirement or other financial goals will be met.