Estate Planning is a "Team" Activity

Aug 15, 2008

Good Estate Planning requires a “team” of professional advisors. The skills and knowledge required to properly assist clients becomes increasingly complex year by year.

Too often, I have been involved in, or observed, "planning" that was done in a one-dimensional manner. That is, an advisor has taken steps for the client, but with a myopic view. For example, if, an attorney advises or drafts Estate Planning documents, without appreciating the tax, financial or insurance consequences of such actions on behalf of a client, the end result can not only fail to accomplish the clients' goals, but may create more significant problems than they originally had.

There are too many variables involved in a proper Estate Plan for one professional advisor (or one discipline) to be expert on all of them. Estate Planning today involves knowledge of multiple areas including State and Federal laws regarding insurance, financial planning and reporting, challenging investment issues in periods of economic uncertainty, health, management and custodial issues, and changing rules regarding Probate and Trust administration. It is important for clients to align themselves not only with a good Estate Planning attorney, but with competent and talented financial advisors, and in the majority of cases good independent tax advisors. My own tendencies favor Certified Public Accountants (“CPA”), but I recognize that quality and competency in any professional field is ultimately more important that the little letters that follow the advisor’s name.

When a new client comes to my office for Estate Planning, part of the initial meeting involves learning about their other advisors. I want to be sure that those advisors are all on the same proverbial “page,” before we complete the Estate Plan.

It is equally important that the “team” be able to work together. Like a sports team, “chemistry” is an important factor. Egos must be put aside for the best interests of our clients. In my profession, particularly, we have that “never let them see you sweat” mentality. The law school experience (at least back in the early 1980's) emphasized the lawyers advocacy role and conditioned us to argue and advocate. But in the real world, we must advocate for the client in a non-confrontational manner, by using all available resources, including the expertise of the other professional advisors involved.

I don’t care who the team “leader” is. In my experience, that varies with the particular dynamics of the associations. Some clients expect me to be the leader. That’s fine. Other clients have come to me over the years on the recommendation of their CPA, Insurance or Financial Advisor. In many cases, those advisors continue to be the pivotal “player” on the team. That works for me. My view is that if we all focus on what is best for the client, the team will mesh and client goals will be met.

When contemplating an Estate Plan, a client should look to an Estate Planning advisor who works well with other professionals as a team to create the best Estate Planning environment, and thus, the best Estate Plan for them.


How Do I Choose An Estate Planner?

Jan 11, 2008

There is no “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” or “UL” rating for Attorneys, Insurance and Financial advisors. And, to make matters more confusing, in Michigan, anybody can call themselves an “Estate Planner” with no formal training or credentials, whatsoever. This makes choosing a good planner a daunting task. One of my fears is that it is so daunting that it prevents people who really need to plan from seeking appropriate help.

Free Seminars,” and Radio and Television commercials touting websites and services abound today. Too often, these are offered by practitioners who are not qualified. There is a substantial amount of misinformation out there. While some of these services may well be legitimate, sorting out the accurate from inaccurate information is the challenge.

I encourage clients to look for certain “credentials.” Not that credentials, by themselves, qualify a person to adequately advice about good Estate Planning, but it helps “winnow” out those who are clearly not qualified. And, credentials presuppose a certain amount of formal education, training, and sometimes experience in the discipline of Estate Planning. If a planner is an active member of their local Estate Planning Council (which is affiliated with the National Association of Estate Planning Councils), they will have to have one or more designated credentials related to Estate Planning. They are also likely to be up to date on current issues and techniques. I have found this to be a good starting source to find qualified individuals. Having a designation as a CLU, CFP or LUTC for life insurance and financial professionals generally means they have had a certain amount of training in the estate planning area. Advanced degrees (for lawyers and accountants) such as a Masters Degree in Taxation, or a Master of Laws in Taxation or Estate Planning are also a measure of qualification.

Experience is also important. Clients should “interview” a prospective advisor before engaging their services. Most of us are glad to talk to clients for a reasonable period of time at no charge, in order to discuss our qualifications, how we work and how we can help a client. Fair questions are: How long has the individual been engaged in Estate Planning? What percentage of his or her business involves Estate Planning? How many plans or Estate Planning clients does he or she serve each year? How often do they attend professional Continuing Education programs in Estate Planning to stay current (The Michigan Bar Association has a great continuing legal education program which offers a lot to lawyers to stay up to date. Some of us “older” attorneys are not required to have any continuing education -- but we should attend anyway)? Do they have representative clients who would be willing to serve as a reference (note that this may be difficult, because of client confidentiality concerns)? How much and how do they charge for their services? And it wouldn’t hurt to ask that Estate Planning Council member if they attend regularly.

In the end, it is important that you--the client--be ultimately comfortable with your advisor. It may be that he or she is imminently well-qualified in terms of knowledge, experience, and credentials. But if you cannot build a comfortable and trusting relationship, the experience will not be satisfying. I always advise clients to find advisors who they trust and feel comfortable with and stay with those advisors.

Thanks for reading


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