Show more sharing options
Share Show more sharing options
When "Sam" and "Joyce" (I've changed their names and blurred some personal details to protect their privacy) walked into my office about 10 years ago, all I knew about them was that they had made an appointment after seeing me on local media, somewhat cryptically telling my assistant they "had some questions about a situation."
They were both still working at the time — Sam as a professional and Joyce in education; they were of moderate means and lived in a comfortable, but by no means upscale, neighborhood. But the story they shared with me that day was extraordinary — and was just the beginning of a personal and financial journey none of us could have foreseen at the time.
"There's this lady from our neighborhood," Sam began, "and she's … a little odd." He went on to explain that they often saw her pushing around a grocery cart filled with a random assortment of items, making her look much like a stereotypical homeless person. But the woman — we'll call her "May" — wasn't homeless. She lived nearby, in a house that, while decidedly in need of some upkeep, seemed structurally sound.
May was genial and generally in possession of her faculties but she did display some unusual behaviors. "We might come back from a trip to the store and find her weeding our front flower bed or raking our leaves," Joyce told me. One time, she and Sam returned from a trip out of town to find her standing on their front porch. "She said she hadn't seen us for a few days and was worried about us." Joyce told me. Over time, the couple formed an odd friendship with May and the three would chat almost daily when they met around the neighborhood. May told them she had come to the U.S. many years ago when her parents immigrated from Europe. Though her descriptions were vague, May confirmed that she had worked in an office for many years and had been retired for quite some time.
Once, after a period of days in which May was nowhere to be seen, Sam and Joyce became concerned. Going to her house, they found the door unlocked and when they went in, found May sitting on the floor, propped against a chair. "I fell," was all she would or could tell them. Sam and Joyce took May to the hospital where physicians diagnosed a probable transient ischemic attack — a TIA or mini-stroke — and said she was likely to have additional episodes.
Clearly, May needed skilled nursing care, but Sam and Joyce could locate no relatives to make such arrangements. "As far as we knew, we were the only people in a position to help," Sam said. So help they did. They got May into a nursing home and, upon learning that ongoing costs would amount to several thousand dollars per month, secured the necessary documentation to enable them to help May sell her home to raise some of the necessary funds. When they warned May more money might be needed as time went on, she said, 'I've got a safe deposit box with some money it.'"
Upon opening the box, Sam said he was astounded to see a stack of U.S. Treasury bonds — some with coupon rates exceeding 9% — worth over a half-million dollars. When he returned to the nursing home to tell May the news, she grinned and said, "I know."
Which is how Sam and Joyce wound up in my office. "We've never had that kind of money," I remember Joyce telling me at that first meeting, "and we don't know what to do with it. But May is going to need ongoing income. We saw you on TV, and we looked up your website, and we like what you say about your investment philosophy. So, we were hoping you could help us figure out how to help May."
Though the money in May's safe deposit box fell well below my usual guidelines for taking on a client, I was eager to help these two kind people as they did their best to take care of a friend in need. Sam and Joyce gathered all the necessary documentation and we set up an account for May (including my usual asset allocation fee) that provided for her needs for the remaining five years of her life.
And when Sam and Joyce learned that May had no will, I helped connect them with an attorney. As executor of May's estate, Sam ensured that her final wishes were carried out, including some small sums bequeathed to various acquaintances. According to the will, the unspent balance went to Sam and Joyce. Including the growth that the account had enjoyed, Sam and Joyce ended up with a sum in the mid-six figures.
Reap the harvest
If the story ended there, it would be amazing enough, right? Two people selflessly did their best for someone who needed help and were eventually amply rewarded.
But as the infomercials say, "There's more."
Years after May's death, the phone rang at Sam and Joyce's home and a person with foreign accent asked if they were acquainted with May. On learning they were, the caller said they might be entitled to more money from the estate. "I hung up on him," Sam recalled. "I assumed it was a scam." But the phone rang again, and the same person was on the line insisting that he needed to talk to them.
As it turned out, the caller was a solicitor for a firm in Europe that specialized in tracking down lost or abandoned funds. In the 1920s, May's grandfather participated in an initial offering of public stock for a soccer team that would eventually become internationally famous. The stock ownership documents had been long forgotten until they surfaced with the solicitor. With stock splits over the years, the securities were now worth in excess of $200,000. Sometime later, the solicitor called again to inform them that additional certificates had been found that boosted the value even more. After a lengthy verification and settlement process and a commission payable to the solicitor's firm, Sam and Joyce received a significant addition to May's original bequest, raising the total close to a million dollars.
Sam's reaction? "We don't deserve any of this," he told me. "We were just trying to help somebody who didn't have anybody else. But now that we have it, we feel a deep responsibility to be good stewards and to be generous to others. Our scale for generosity has changed, and we want to act accordingly." And they have. Sam and Joyce have become dedicated supporters of various worthy causes in their community by means of donor-advised funds and other gifting strategies.
By now, you may have perceived several important takeaways. Perhaps most obvious and practical for financial and wealth advisors is how vital it is to make sure your message — including your investment philosophy — is getting out to your community. If Sam and Joyce hadn't learned about our approach via local media and other channels all those years ago, I would never have had the opportunity to help them.
But a more foundational takeaway is the wisdom that can be found in these ancient words: "Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days." And these: "Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up."
In our profession, people — not financial assets — are the most valuable resource we deal with. And the fact is that we never know from one day to the next which interaction, example of service or extra mile taken may result in opportunities we could never have anticipated.
Such was definitely the case for Sam and Joyce — and for me.