The Dispute over Mother Simmon’s Chair

The argument over Mother Simmon’s estate was growing ugly. Things were getting so heated among her three children that they were contemplating calling in the lawyers.

The estate contained $500,000 in assets – a significant amount.

But it wasn’t the value that was causing the rising emotional temperatures. Most of it had been divided to everyone’s satisfaction.

Blocking a resolution was Mother Simmons’ rocking chair – a worn, spindly thing that had sat by the fireplace in the Simmons’s home for as long as her offspring could remember.

The fate of the seemingly worthless piece of furniture was getting so serious that the Denver, Colorado trust officer assigned to the estate called a special emergency meeting. He didn’t get far. The meeting disintegrated into arguing, name calling and a shoving match. Over a chair, he thought.

To the outsider, the situation might seem ridiculous. But trust officers are finding that settling estates these days requires not only financial expertise, but also an understanding of the emotional motivations that might make clients go ballistic over a rocking chair. For complex reasons, the Simmons chair had come to represent Mother and each child, feeling vulnerable and irrational, was fighting to claim “her”.

Deciding how to share the rocker demanded some sensitive emotional stickhandling on the trust officer’s part – work for which he wasn’t trained.

One organization that recognizes trust work involves more than a calculator and a list of assets is Royal Trust of RBC Investments. The bank is one of the few Canadian financial institutions to train its officers in understanding client dynamics and emotions during the estate settlement process.

Says the director of personal trust policy and risk management with Royal Trust of RBC Investments, Kathleen Cunningham: “What is really important today is client relationships. It is critical that you know who your beneficiaries are and can relate to them well.”

“You can’t do that without understanding their emotional needs”.

She says that, today, trust officers have to be “psychologists, accountants and lawyers all in one.” They undergo extensive – and expensive – technical (for example, estate settlement law and administration, taxation and investment strategy) and interpersonal skill-training that can cost between $100,000 to $150,000 per officer.

But it’s paying off. Since implementing the interpersonal skills training component called Trust: The Human Dimension, Royal Trust has observed increased customer satisfaction, improved efficiency, increased referrals, increased sales, less friction and a healthier workplace.

The interpersonal training component is emotionally intense, requiring participants to learn self-awareness, grieving and loss, family dynamics, empathy and interpersonal effectiveness.

Cunningham explained “You have to understand what the clients are going through, grieving and loss.” To do this, participants might reflect on personal losses in their own lives.

Understanding grief is important since symptoms like the inability to concentrate, make understanding the complexity of estate settlement difficult for mourners. So trust officers must be patient and realize they may get asked the same questions again and again.

Then there are family dynamics to deal with – not always simple.

“You need to recognize that different family members may have different ways of showing their grief or their emotions. They may have spouses who want to get involved or take over. You have to manage those people who are often at the meetings with them,” Cunningham says.

It is important that trust officers remain neutral in dealing with family members’ various agendas.

Increased sales, referrals and customer loyalty are based on much more than technical expertise. Organizations like trust companies whose business is administrative or highly technical in nature are sometimes surprised when customer satisfaction eludes them. In trust officer Frank’s case he was competent in attending to the legal, administrative and taxation details, but needed to understand grieving, family dynamics and family conflict to offer exemplary service.

Sadly, ultimately everyone in the family lost out. Litigation expenses ate up the bulk of the inheritance; litigation permanently damaged family relationships. When a judge finally came to review the matter she ordered Mother’s chair kept at the family cabin. Each sibling could “visit” it at their monthly weekend there.

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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