Broach­ing a Touchy Sub­ject

Should an ad­vi­sor do noth­ing if a client is abus­ing il­licit sub­stances, or seize the op­por­tu­nity to dis­cuss it?

Financial Planning - - CONTENT - By Carolyn Mc­clana­han

Should an ad­vi­sor do noth­ing if a client is abus­ing drugs, or seize the op­por­tu­nity to dis­cuss it?

WITH ONE OUT OF 10 PEO­PLE CON­SUM­ING IL­LICIT drugs, it is highly likely some of your clients are at least oc­ca­sion­ally smok­ing up, pop­ping pills or get­ting high one way or an­other. Even rare drug use has po­ten­tial for le­gal, med­i­cal and fi­nan­cial com­pli­ca­tions. Should ad­vi­sors ask their clients about drug con­sump­tion? And what — if any­thing — should an ad­vi­sor do if they find out a client is abus­ing mar­i­juana, co­caine or opi­oids?


Just like we can’t com­mand clients to not waste money, it’s also not our place to tell them not to use drugs. In my prac­tice, I don’t ask specif­i­cally about il­licit drug use, es­pe­cially early in the re­la­tion­ship. Most peo­ple don’t use drugs and even fewer have se­ri­ous prob­lems with drug use where they might need an in­ter­ven­tion. I don’t want to go there un­less I see a need to ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion.

What do I do when I iden­tify an is­sue? There are a num­ber of ways drug use may come up, and when it does, I grab the op­por­tu­nity to dis­cuss it.

I’ve had a cou­ple of clients share that while they are vis­it­ing Am­s­ter­dam or Colorado, they plan to en­joy some le­gal mar­i­juana. Since le­gal recre­ational mar­i­juana use of­ten has lit­tle risk, I don’t worry.

But if they work for an em­ployer who may test for drug use, I hu­mor­ously re­mind them to not let their em­ployer find out. Although recre­ational mar­i­juana is now le­gal in eight states and the Dis­trict of Columbia, it is still il­le­gal on a fed­eral level and em­ploy­ers can hold a failed drug test against work­ers or job ap­pli­cants.

Clients most likely will not bring up the fact they are us­ing il­le­gal drugs. In our prac­tice, we ask about health is­sues early on, but we do not specif­i­cally ask about drug use. In­stead, chronic sub­stance abuse is re­vealed through an event such as a hos­pi­tal­iza­tion or ar­rest, through a dis­cov­ery process of re­al­iz­ing some­thing isn’t right with a client, or through a fam­ily mem­ber shar­ing their con­cern.

If a client is hos­pi­tal­ized for abuse, I im­me­di­ately reach out to of­fer help. Ad­vi­sors can help clients with the plan to get treat­ment, ad­dress cash flow needs, and re­mind the fam­ily to keep up with the costs for fu­ture tax de­duc­tions. I’ve had this hap­pen two times with clients, and the main con­cern is how they will pay for treat­ment not cov­ered by in­surance. We helped them de­vise ways to come up with cash to pay for the help they needed.


If I rec­og­nize some­thing isn’t right with a client, and I’m con­cerned about drug use, I ask. Authen­tic­ity, con­cern and will­ing­ness to have hard con­ver­sa­tions cre­ate bet­ter re­la­tion­ships. Ap­proach the con­cern with open-ended, non­judg­men­tal ques­tions. My clients know I have a sense of hu­mor, and a phrase I of­ten use is, “Ev­ery­one has their poop. Is there some­thing go­ing on that I should know about?”

The book “Fierce Con­ver­sa­tions” by Su­san Scott is a great re­source for ad­vi­sors who want to im­prove their abil­ity to have hard con­ver­sa­tions about tough sub­jects with clients. I pur­pose­fully reread this book ev­ery few years to re­in­force

my com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills.


I do not go to fam­ily mem­bers or trusted con­tacts di­rectly about my con­cern. Although we have let­ters in place to con­tact trusted peo­ple in the event of con­cerns around in­ca­pac­ity, most drug use is not an is­sue of in­ca­pac­ity. I owe it to clients to be di­rect and get their in­put about my con­cerns, plus it is a breach of con­fi­den­tial­ity if I talk to other fam­ily mem­bers.

If I find out a client is us­ing drugs il­le­gally, which would in­clude mar­i­juana in states where use isn’t le­gal, I share my con­cerns about the le­gal and em­ploy­ment com­pli­ca­tions that may oc­cur.


Le­gal is­sues may oc­cur if a client gets ar­rested for try­ing to ob­tain drugs. I’ve never had a client ar­rested, but I have a net­work of at­tor­neys I can reach out to on be­half of clients if this hap­pens. The cash flow needed for their de­fense may be sig­nif­i­cant, so we would plan ahead for how to get the cash needed in the most tax ef­fi­cient way.


Ad­dic­tion is the main med­i­cal is­sue of con­cern. This of­ten leads the client down the path of health is­sues and fi­nan­cial ruin. Ideally, an ad­vi­sor will help the client and their fam­ily get help early in the process.

Help­ing clients find ap­pro­pri­ate treat­ment fa­cil­i­ties, re­fer­ring fam­ily to 12-step pro­grams and sup­port groups like Al-anon and Nar-anon, and plan­ning for the fi­nances around their new re­al­ity are ser­vices that clients and their fam­ily will value highly.

There is no le­gal obli­ga­tion to pro­vide this type of ser­vice to clients with ad­dic­tion is­sues. But as robo ad­vi­sors con­tinue to com­modi­tize the typ­i­cal work of fi­nan­cial plan­ners, help­ing clients solve prob­lems in their great­est time of need will go a long way to­ward ce­ment­ing the re­la­tion­ship. Ad­di­tion­ally, help­ing a client stay phys­i­cally and men­tally healthy will re­duce the chance they run out of money and will no longer be good clients.

Peo­ple with drug prob­lems are of­ten par­a­lyzed by fear, so we do as much as pos­si­ble to get them where they need to be. When it is all over, the client and their fam­ily are grate­ful for your help and you’ve ideally kept a good client for life.

Drug use and other life­style is­sues may not be a field where ad­vi­sors are com­fort­able, but know­ing how to deal with these is­sues in ad­vance will pre­pare you for the day when it hap­pens. Not only may you save a great client re­la­tion­ship, you may also help save your client’s life.

Help­ing a client stay phys­i­cally and men­tally healthy will re­duce the chance they run out of money and will no longer be good clients.

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