Episode 1: Family Secrets

We had just got back from an end-of-summer vacation. The sky was blue and the Midwestern smell of fall was already in the air. I was headed to work on what felt like a pretty normal Monday morning. As I came around the first of two sharp corners, I noticed the historic downtown mansions with their tall rock walls. When you drive by them, you can’t help but wonder what’s going on behind those stately stones. But before I could get caught up in a daydream about them, my overly organized and somewhat OCD assistant was calling.

I sighed and turned down one of my favorite Bob Seger tunes. I knew vacation was officially over, so I answered, “Hey Sara, how’s my favorite assistant — did you miss me?”

She didn’t laugh or seem to care for my humor in the moment. Instead, with a quiet yet abrupt voice she asked, “Where are you?”

I chimed back, “I’m a couple minutes out. Is everything okay and why are you talking like that?”

“Ron Leavy is here and he’s waiting in your office.”

Ron was a long-time client on the verge of retirement. He was a very successful executive who traveled the world for his work. He had a great family and big beautiful house with one of those extreme backyards. They had a giant waterfall pool, sand volleyball court, tiki bar, and even their very own putting green — not to mention an in-ground trampoline and 5-car garage.

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But he was also gone a good six months of the year traveling for his job, and I know he felt guilty about having missed such a big part of his kids growing up — hence the crazy backyard that sat vacant with the kids in college now.

I hadn’t seen Ron for close to a year, and he was not the pop-over kind of guy. He seemed to schedule things months in advance and often had to change them because of his extensive travel to China and other Asian countries. So I said to Sara, “Ok, did he say what was going on?”

She responded in a soft voice, so Ron wouldn’t hear, “No, but he hasn’t stopped pacing in your office since he got here.”

Having been a financial advisor for over 20 years, when people show up unexpectedly like this it could mean any number of things. Maybe a parent has passed, an adult child needs money because of some credit card debt, or they’re thinking about switching careers or starting a business, but none of that resonated with Ron and his stage of life, family, or career.

I rushed to the office, skipping my normal coffee and paper pickup at the little café shop on the main floor. As I walked into the waiting room, the door to my office was open and I saw Ron looking out the window.

He looked pale, was standing very tense, and was in deep thought. He wasn’t in his normal suit and tie or his $1,000 shoes and Rolex watch. Instead, he was wearing some old tennis shoes, some really bad dad jeans, and a shirt that looked like it was from the bottom of the dirty clothes pile.

I walked in the door and moved toward my desk to put my brief case down. Putting on the best smile I could, I said, “Hey Ron, good to see you. How are you?”

But, Ron wasn’t there for small talk or to catch up.

“I’m done!” he exclaimed, reiterating the point, “I’m out. That’s it.”

I didn’t know what to say, because I had no idea what he was talking about. Was he done with work, his wife, or one of their kids? Thankfully my training as a psychologist in my first career kicked in, so I replied with some reflective listening to suggest I was present and ready to listen.

“You’re done,” I retorted. “Okay, tell me what’s going on?”

Frustrated and pointing to a stack of newspapers on the bookshelf, “Have you read the Journal this morning? My company is changing direction and eliminating my entire division. Bastards couldn’t even warn me. I found out through the damn paper today.”

There was a silent pause and I knew the best thing to do was to be quiet and let him process what was going on.

The interesting part is that Ron was just a couple years short of his planned retirement date. He had already set aside enough money to finish putting their two kids through college, could easily fund a wedding or two in the next few years, and had enough saved to retire anytime he wanted.

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He was a thrifty, predictable guy who had a spread sheet for everything — and growing up in a lower middle-class family, he worked hard to make sure that he and his wife Lisa would never have to worry about money.

In other words, Ron could lose his job at any time and never have a financial worry again.

So I inquired, “Does Lisa know yet?”

Sheepishly he said, “No, Lisa doesn’t know. She doesn’t know a lot and I don’t know what I am going to do. Without my job, I won’t be traveling to China any more.”

In an effort to try and change the mood of the conversation I suggested, “I would think Lisa would be pretty happy to have you home more often and to start doing some of that travel together that she always talked about.

“Plus, I know I don’t have to tell you, but you’ve done a great job saving in anticipation for something like this — and I imagine there will be a nice severance package and you still have the stock options — so this can be the start of something good.”

But sometimes when people are facing change, especially in terms of retirement, money takes a back seat to everything else.

Ron stood up, began walking toward the window and uttered, “I have another family.”

The silence was deafening, and it felt like the air was sucked out of the room. He continued on, “I fell in love with another woman over there and we have a young daughter.”

I don’t know if Ron heard me gasp, but I literally lost my breath and was suddenly sick to my stomach. My mind began to spin as I considered the enormity of the situation and the implications for him, his wife, and the second family… not to mention the fact that he had just lost his professional life and identity, and the many challenges that can come with a sudden or forced retirement.

Now I was standing up too, with my hand resting over my mouth and nose, body language that exemplified the fact that I had no idea what to say. I began to walk over to the window, with the goal of just standing near him and supporting his blank stare until he was ready to open up.

As Ron and I stood there in this deafening silence, I thought, I have no bag of tricks to pull out for this one.

Normally, the first step to helping someone deal with a change like this is to normalize their situation. To tell them, “You’re not alone… other people have gone through something similar… and everything is going to be okay.” But there was no way to normalize this one, I definitely couldn’t say, “It’s okay, I’ve had a couple other clients with second families over in Asia, and a forced retirement was the absolute best thing that happened to them.”

Then, as if things couldn’t get worse, Sara knocked on the door and poked her head in. I made a hand and head motion to shoo her out of the room, but she was persistent.

I waited a moment. Ron still wasn’t saying anything, so I apologized to him and let him know I would be right back.

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I was pissed about the interruption, so I walked into the reception area and said, “Sara, this better be crazy important, right now is not the time for some trivial thing.”

She handed me an IRA distribution form for Ellen Fitzsimmons and said, “She needs it today!”

I glanced down and saw it was for $58,000. “Holy cow, Sara, she can’t do that. She’s going to get killed with taxes — and a huge penalty because she’s not 59 ½, yet.”

Have you ever had one of those days where everything seems to be crumbling right in front of you? Frustrated, I started drilling Sara — like she should have known why this was happening — and asked, “Why is Ellen taking it? What did she say?”

In her own Sara way, she snarked back, “I don’t know. She just said she needs it today!”

I walked across the hall to the conference room for a quick call to find out what was going on.

As the phone rang, I tried to sort through my head why Ellen would want so much money. It was almost a third of her total account value. I’ve been working with Ellen for over 10 years, ever since her husband had passed away. She was an attractive woman with a warm smile and one of those Cindy Crawford moles just above her lips.

She raised their three girls and is the closest thing to a saint that I know. She volunteers at St. Michael’s Church and has more crosses and religious statues around her house than the Pope himself.

Just when I thought the call was about to go to voicemail, she answered.

“Hey Ellen, it’s Rob Stevens, how are you?”

In a hurried voice she replied, “Not very good, were you able to transfer the money yet?”

Sensing her urgency, I was quick to reply, “We can take care of it right way for you but I just wanted to make sure you’re aware of the tax situation and penalties before we submit it — and I wanted to make sure everything is okay”

She was emphatic, “I don’t have a choice. Julie was picked up by the police and I need the money for an attorney.”

I replied, “I’m so sorry Ellen.”

I have to admit though, I wasn’t exactly surprised. Julie has been a leaky faucet to her mother’s financial situation for some time now. Julie used to be that All-American kid until 11th grade when her dad died and she hurt her knee playing soccer.

The pain meds were supposed to be for her physical pain but were abused to offset the grief she was going through. She has been in and out of rehab a couple times, been busted shop lifting at a few retail outlets, and — much to her mother’s dismay — is in a relationship with another woman.

It was all par for the course, except the fact that $58,000 was a ton of money for what I expected to be a drunk driving ticket or possession of narcotics deal that would fit her lifestyle and past choices.

My wandering mind was interrupted by Ellen’s panicked tone, “Julie called 911 last night after her girlfriend overdosed. She was rushed to the hospital but died shortly after arriving.”

My head dropped is disbelief and before I could say anything, she continued, “After the ambulance left, the police questioned Julie. She was hysterical and still high, so she admitted to buying the drugs and injecting them. So now she is being held on drug possession, delivery, and a murder charge.”

“Murder charge?” I exclaimed, but quickly covered my mouth. In a lower tone I added, “That’s absurd, it’s a drug overdose. I can’t believe they’re taking it to that extreme.”

I could sense the tears streaming down her face as she shared, “Our attorney said this is happening more often because of the opioid epidemic and the state’s plan to get tough on drugs like Heroin. It’s my biggest nightmare and we need to move fast in order to get this sorted out. How quickly can we get the money?”

What do you say to that? Would you sacrifice a good chunk of your retirement savings to help your son or daughter avoid becoming a poster child for drug abuse with a murder charge?

We wrapped up with a quick plan for her to come in later that day, since she had to sign for an IRA distribution. Ellen had already hung up, but I couldn’t lower the phone from my ear as I considered what I would be willing to do in such a situation.

Shortly thereafter, I walked out of the small conference room, somewhat dazed as I handed the paperwork back to Sara. Then I walked in to see Ron. He hadn’t moved and was now biting the skin around his finger nails. It was somewhat symbolic that a dark shadow from the building across the street now engulfed him.

He broke the silence by saying, “I didn’t do it to hurt anyone. It just happened. I spend so much time over there, we grew close and I love her — and Lisa too. I knew it was wrong but just didn’t think it would come to this. I don’t know what to do.”

I don’t know if you are a curious person like me, but in that very moment I had to know if the family in China knew about his family here, so I asked him.

Ron was quick to reply, “No… they have no idea about each other.

Then he added, “You’re the only one who knows about both of them,” and walked out of my office without saying another thing.

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After each episode we provide follow up tools and resources to help you learn more about the topics covered, from both a personal as well as financial aspect.

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