The relationship between estate planning lawyers and financial advisors (of all types – CFPs, investment advisors, insurance professionals, CPAs, and other financial consultants) is critically important when it comes to client service. While our fields are related, our areas of expertise are uniquely complicated, each requiring specific, high-level education/training/experience. While one may have a general understanding of a variety of financial, tax and estate planning topics, without special training and education, it’s impossible to know them in depth. After all, dentists know what they know about teeth. Mechanics know what they know about cars. And I know what I know about estate planning and gift, estate and generation-skipping transfer taxes…and, ok, wine and brick oven pizza.
When a client comes to me with a financial question that is outside of my wheelhouse, I ask myself, “Who do I know that could best answer this question?” One of the many benefits to having been in business for so long is that we have built an extensive list of trusted connections in a host of financial-related fields. I take comfort in knowing that within minutes, I can have the ear of one of these fine professionals and get answers to important questions. Similarly, I am honored that they come to me when estate-related concerns come up.
A financial planner recently sent me a list of questions he uses to vet attorneys before recommending them to clients. These were my responses.
1. Please tell me about your interest, background, and experience in the planning field. What percentage of your practice is in estate planning?
For the last 30 years, I have been exclusively an estate planning attorney. In 1996, I started my own law firm, to concentrate solely on estate planning. My interest in estate planning began during law school when I learned about tax law and estate planning. Various family situations also made me realize the importance of comprehensive estate planning, including ensuring that the assets are properly controlled by the appropriate documents. Over 95% of our practice is estate planning, estate tax law, probate, and trust administration.
2. How do you define estate planning?
Estate planning involves a collection of legal documents that account for some of life’s most personal and important decisions. It is something that all people need, regardless of age, health, or value of assets. Comprehensive estate planning ensures that the right people are in place to make medical, financial, parental, and business decisions on your behalf – both while you’re alive and long after you’re gone. It makes certain that the right people and/or organizations inherit your assets and that they are distributed in the time and manner in which you intended. A properly executed estate plan should also provide protection against the misuse, squandering, and mismanagement of assets, due to a reckless beneficiary, divorce, lawsuit or creditor.
3. What is your counseling philosophy?
Above all, my firm believes that it is imperative to first listen to the client…find out what their goals and expectations are, pinpoint any fears or concerns they may have, and get to know what results will bring them peace of mind. From there, without speaking “Legalese”, I explain the estate and tax concepts and strategies that would best serve them.
4. What is the process of working with clients to assure that the plan will work?
Once we have a plan in place, we work with the client and their other advisors to make sure that we have all of the information and documentation that is needed to move forward. For their convenience, we offer secure, web-based document transfer. Once we have drafted all necessary documents for the estate plan, we send them to the client for review, have meetings, phone calls and emails to explain and review the draft documents, and then schedule in-person signings of the estate planning documents. We stay connected with our clients over the years, keeping them abreast of any changes to laws which could impact them, reminding them to have their plans reviewed every four years, or any time there are changes such as divorce, remarriage, new children, change in residency, or a significant shift in assets. Our goal is to be their attorney for life and to provide such excellent service, that they recommend us to their children and even grandchildren.
5. How will you counsel with me and/or client to design the plan?
We are pleased to work alongside our clients’ other trusted advisors. Advisors often help us to further understand what the client’s goals and objectives are, so we welcome them to join us at the first (and any subsequent) meetings. We will work closely with the client and their advisor to make sure the estate plan is implemented and monitored appropriately.
6. How do we assure that the client assets are controlled by the instructions contained in the planning documents? Who is responsible for this coordination, you or client?
We believe it is a combination of the client, the advisor, and us working together to assure that the assets are controlled by the estate planning documents. We make sure all real estate properties and business interests are controlled by the estate planning documents and give detailed instructions to the client and advisor regarding financial assets and life insurance policies. We will complete beneficiary designations when the client or advisors provides us with the beneficiary change form.
7. How do we assure that the plan stays current with changes in the law?
We send a letter to our clients every year that identifies any recent or imminent changes in the law. Between 3 to 5 years after documents are signed, we send an individual letter to each client, followed up by phone calls and emails, to have the client arrange a review and follow-up meeting. We also keep our website current and publish blogs and posts via social media with information on estate planning and other related topics that our clients and their advisors find useful.
8. What is the level of involvement of the clients family in the planning process?
How involved a client’s family is with their estate planning process is relies solely on what the client wants. Whatever they are comfortable with, we will accommodate.
9. How do you charge for your services?
Initially, estate planning engagements are normally based upon a project fee, sometimes based on hours spent.
Specifically, how much will the estate be charged after the client dies?
All engagements after a client dies, are based upon hours spent. We learned that charging a percentage awarded those clients who did not do what we told them to do and punished those clients and their families who implemented their plan appropriately.
What if the client is disabled?
All advise and work after the initial estate planning engagement is normally based upon hours spent.
10. What is your record with regards to probate? What percentage of your trust-based plans wind up having assets probated? Do you charge differently for this?
95% or more of our client’s trust-based estate plans do not have any significant assets probated. All post-death administrative matters are charged based upon hours spent.
11. Do you handle the filing of death tax returns if they are necessary?
If so, how do you charge for that service?
We normally charge based upon the hours spent.
12. What happens if something happens to you?
We have a current team of 5 attorneys. If something happens to me, one of these attorneys will take over.
13. How best should the client prepare for the consultation?
We provide a short client questionnaire which we ask to be completed prior to the first meeting. We also ask that the client bring copies of deeds, financial statements, and any prior estate planning documents. More information is always better, but the most important step is for the client to come to the meeting prepared to move forward with the estate planning process.
14. What type of service should the client expect from you? Our goal is to provide the best service possible and to prepare the estate planning documents necessary for that client. Every estate planning engagement is different, because people, their families, their assets and their situations are different. Therefore, our service is directly tied to the client’s goals and objectives and how they want us to respond to them.
15. Do you expect any commitments from the client? Our clients can help us to provide them with the best, most efficient estate planning documents and service possible by being prepared to move forward, carefully reading their documents, asking questions, responding in a timely manner, and being open and honest.
We welcome the opportunity to work with your other trusted advisors. To schedule an introductory meeting, please contact us.