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Wall Street Journal / Biz - Money

Preparing and Protecting Vulnerable Clients

Adviser Profile: Sheryl Stephens, president at Stephens Wealth Management in Flint, Mich., has seen the struggles of the automotive industry and taken away lessons that continue to inform her work. “We’ve learned how to plan and prepare our clients for contingencies,” she says.

Sheryl Stephens

• President at Stephens Wealth Management Group, Flint, Mich.
• Education: B.B.A., University of Michigan-Flint

Ms. Stephens on the industry’s biggest challenge: planning for the challenges posed by increasingly long life spans. Photo: Stephens Wealth Management Group

Background: While pursuing an education degree in college, Ms. Stephens secured an internship at an advisory firm. One of the advisers became her mentor, and she was moved to join the profession when she heard clients speak of the positive ways he’d changed their lives. “I realized that advising was a teaching profession, and one where I could do a great deal of good,” Ms. Stephens says. She stayed at the firm, taking over after her mentor died unexpectedly in his mid-50s.

Her practice: Ms. Stephens’s firm serves nearly 500 clients and has $550 million in assets under management. Most of her clients are nearing or at retirement age, and many are single or widowed women. Ms. Stephens says that living and working in the greater Detroit area has given her a front-row seat to the economic decline of the automotive industry, disappearing pensions and the city’s bankruptcy. Seeing these challenges has informed her advising in a positive way. “We’ve learned how to plan and prepare our clients for contingencies, and as a result they’re more secure and not as fazed by the ups and downs of the market,” she says.

On preparing women for financial responsibility: Because many husbands still handle the bulk of a family’s financial matters, Ms. Stephens says, women are often faced with important and overwhelming decisions in the event of a divorce or spouse’s death. “We’re trying to educate women on the front end to prepare them for these situations,” she says. Ms. Stephens encourages women to attend advisory meetings with their spouses and to ask any questions they have.

On protecting vulnerable clients: After witnessing an older client fall prey to financial abuse by a hired caregiver, Ms. Stephens looks for warning signs among elderly clients who are single or widowed. She suggests that clients plan by naming trusted family members or professionals to handle their finances should they become physically or mentally incapacitated. “People need to make decisions about a financial power of attorney and a health-care power of attorney when they’re healthy,” she says.

More Adviser Profiles

  • Darnel Bentz, senior vice president at Kayne Anderson Rudnick (Feb. 7, 2018)
  • Helen Modly, wealth manager at Buckingham Strategic Wealth (Jan. 31, 2018)
  • Alex Benke, vice president of advice and investing at Betterment (Jan. 24, 2018)
  • Joan Antoniello, principal at Mazars Wealth Advisors (Jan. 17, 2018)
  • Sheree Arntson, chief executive at Allium Financial Advisors (Jan. 10, 2018)
  • Lazetta Rainey Braxton, chief executive at Financial Fountains (Jan. 4, 2018)
  • Catherine Miller, principal at Atlanta Financial Associates (Dec. 20, 2017)
  • Michelle Begina, managing director at Veritas Private Wealth Management Group (Dec. 13, 2017)

On the biggest industry challenge: Ms. Stephens says that planning for increasingly long life spans presents a significant challenge, particularly for women who statistically tend to outlive their spouses. She notes that clients aren’t always aware of the health-care costs they may face in their later years, and advisers need to help them prepare. As part of their estate planning, Ms. Stephens says clients need to consider who they trust to make financial and health-care decisions for them in the event they’re unable to make these decisions themselves, and to put their appointees in writing.

What clients are asking: Lately, Ms. Stephens has been fielding calls from clients wondering if they should invest in digital currencies like bitcoin. She advises these clients to proceed cautiously, warning that while bitcoin has been around for a while, it’s complex and not well regulated.

In her spare time… Ms. Stephens serves on a local community foundation that has helped collect money to aid recovery in the wake of Flint’s water crisis.

—Compiled by Lynn Shattuck