The Wealth-Planning Psychologist Will See You Now

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Talking about money can be hard, but some banks want to help clients open up about their feelings.

Case in point: Ascent Private Capital Management, a unit of U.S. Bancorp that works with the ultrarich.

The office has Ph.D.-level psychologist on staff who helps families sort through the thorny emotional issues that come with inheriting significant wealth.

Kristen Armstrong — whose official title is "strategic wealth coach" — describes her role as a family counselor. While numbers and legalities are her colleagues' expertise, she specializes in difficult conversations.

"A big portion of what we do is create safe environments for families to have the conversations they know they need to have, but haven't been able to have on their own," Armstrong said.

Clients often seek her help after a big life event — the sale of a business or the passing of a loved one — leaves them with large sums of money.

And they typically have one thing in common: They do not foresee how their family relationships will change as a result.

So the bank wants to help.

"Wealth is about more than money," said Michael Cole, president of Ascent.

Ascent's approach to wealth management highlights some of the ongoing changes in the wealth advisory business.

Banks, of course, have begun looking for new ways to automate financial advice for smaller investors, by offering robo-advisory services. At the same time, however, some are also providing more personalized services to clients who are able — and willing — to pay.

U.S. Bancorp established Ascent in 2011. The office works with clients who have at least $75 million in net assets.

During its five-year history, the office has grown to about $10 billion in assets under management. It provides a range of fee-based services, including advice on investment, estate and philanthropic planning. It also offers loans for high-end products such yachts and private jets.

What distinguishes Ascent, however, is its philosophical approach.

"We think that behavioral psychology is an important element," Chief Investment Officer Dan Rauchle said. "People can have emotional reactions to wealth."

That's where its psychologist steps in.

Armstrong joined Ascent in 2012, after well over a decade in private practice as a clinical psychologist and executive coach.

She said her skill set is perfect for her current role.

She sees common themes in her clients: grandparents who want to tell their grandchildren the story behind their wealth, and brothers and sisters who struggle to make decisions together.

She recently worked with four siblings who sold a business that had been in the family for four generations. Only two of the siblings had helped run the business, but once the sale was completed all four wanted an equal say in how to manage the financial assets.

"It put them in a place where they had never been before as a family," Armstrong said. "It was really rupturing."

So Armstrong and her team worked with the siblings, both individually and as a group. After threatening to split apart, the family ultimately stayed together.

Armstrong continues to meet with the family on a quarterly basis to help them talk about business and philanthropic planning.

Additionally, Ascent has a Ph.D. historian on staff who helps clients document the story of how their families accumulated wealth and contributed to their communities.

Karen McNeill began working at Ascent in 2013 after a career in academia, where she researched the wives, sisters and daughters of leading figures in U.S. business history.

She also wrote a biography of Julia Morgan, the architect who designed the Hearst Castle in California.

McNeill said one of her favorite parts about her job is giving "voice" to her clients by uncovering their family stories.

For instance, she recently worked with a widow who was having trouble getting her stepchildren to trust her.

The widow had played a passive role in the family's financial decision-making. But after her husband — a successful businessman — passed away, she needed to assume a leadership role.

McNeill began looking into the widow's family history. The goal was to help empower her — and to show the stepchildren her "interesting and valuable and enlightening" background.

Helping families find the "human" stories behind their wealth helps them build trust with each other, McNeill said.

"My favorite part is really the 'aha' moments that clients have," she said.

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