Practitioner perspective: We need to work together to help vulnerable clients

Robin Melley TEPVulnerability is not synonymous with poverty or age, it can happen to anyone, at any time.

While I have been interested in vulnerability for many years, it was the development of my firm’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy, with the theme, ‘vulnerability and combating financial abuse,’ that really crystallised my desire to develop my technical knowledge.

The issue was highlighted for me when I started working with NS&I Premium Bond winners, who had each scooped a GPB1 million jackpot. You might not think such a group are people to be concerned about, but I discovered there are sometimes substantial difficulties faced by those who come into ‘sudden wealth’, particularly vulnerable minors and elderly people who have lost mental capacity.

For me, it highlighted the fact that we, as professional advisors, should not try and pigeonhole people as vulnerable, but look at a person’s overall circumstances and make sure we consider potential vulnerabilities for all clients.

Everyone is potentially vulnerable

Importantly for financial planners such as myself, and, I’d think, most STEP members, dealing professionally with vulnerability should be at the core of our work. It is too important an issue to be relegated to a compliance tick-box exercise. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is in the middle of a consultation on vulnerability; and the risk is that advisors fall into the trap of viewing ‘vulnerable clients’ as a defined group of people and focus on complying with a set of regulatory requirements.

In real life, everyone is potentially vulnerable, and the signs of vulnerability are often not immediately obvious. Consequently, the issue of vulnerability has to be embedded in the advice process for all clients.

I believe it’s also vital for chartered financial planners, lawyers, and other professionals to work together. For example, when there is an application to the Court of Protection for gifts to be made, the legal advisor usually needs to demonstrate that the attorneys are acting in the donor’s best interests and fully meeting their obligations under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. A chartered financial planner can provide support by undertaking detailed analysis, incorporating a lifetime cashflow forecast to demonstrate the long-term financial consequences of making gifts at the levels proposed.

Helping our fellow human beings is a basic human instinct and, like many STEP members, I have spent my career helping clients solve some of their problems to satisfy their aspirations for themselves and their families. It has been very gratifying to help them, often supporting them with issues not normally considered part of the financial planner’s responsibilities, and it’s a special feeling to give a safe pair of hands to a client who particularly needs help.

Watch out for abuse

Financial planners who adopt a holistic approach with clients can often spot problems because of the nature of the long-term (and often lifelong) relationship they have with clients, where they are meeting on a regular basis. He or she is well placed to pick up on any cues of possible financial abuse. I have, for instance, become aware of an adult child attempting to persuade an elderly parent to make gifts to them to the detriment of the parent; and have been able to intervene to guide and support the client in what is often an emotional situation.

Why I took the STEP Diploma

I realised I could better help others by deepening my understanding and achieving a higher level of technical competence. The STEP Diploma in Advising Vulnerable Clients offered the most comprehensive professional qualification in this area. I certainly found it a challenge finding the time over the last three years to study, but it has been hugely worthwhile. I have learned so much and it has enabled me to adapt our approach to financial planning to be more closely aligned with the needs of those who find themselves in vulnerable circumstances.

Examples of the improvements include the provision of detailed information and guidance to the parents of minors, to ensure they are clear on their fiduciary duties and obligations, and improving the way in which we refer to and collaborate with legal advisors.

Put simply, I believe that I am a better financial planner because of what I have learned through the attainment of the STEP Diploma and becoming a Full Member of STEP. The biggest beneficiaries are, of course, our clients.

Robin Melley FPFS TEP is a Chartered Financial Planner, at Matrix Capital in Shropshire.