Estate Planning – the responsibilities and the opportunities

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How you can be more actively involved in your clients’ estate planning.

This brief article makes the case for accountants and financial planners to be more actively involved in their clients estate planning.

Introduction

If there’s one thing that’s certain about the clients that you look after, it’s that they will all die at some stage. How prepared are they for this and more particularly, are their affairs in order?

In this brief discussion paper, I’d like to explore the responsibilities of financial advisers in this area, along with the commercial opportunities that accompany making estate planning an integral part of the services you provide.

Traditional practice

Let me start with sharing some observations about what I’ve seen as normal practice –

Accountants

  • Often, it’s a case of complete abdication. For some, this is a conscious decision – “We haven’t been engaged to provide that service”. Otherwise it can be a natural consequence of an aversion to selling or simply being too busy on other issues to give it much thought.
  • Some accountants bristle when challenged about not being involved in clients’ estate planning, yet when it’s all peeled back their only involvement has been to ask “Do you have a will?” at the first meeting with a new client.
  • Others are wary about venturing away from the certainty of numbers and venturing into a much more personal discussion with their clients

By and large, I submit that this is simply not good enough. Accountants are failing their clients by not taking a greater interest in this area.

Financial planners

  • Under their duty of care responsibilities, planners typically take a more systematic approach than accountants. This is most likely because estate planning is a section in their Statement of Advice template and consequently a compliance auditor may check to see that this aspect has been completed. Often though, the care component is cursory, simply recommending that clients seek out a lawyer to get their wills prepared, without sufficient follow up to ensure that this is actually done.
  • I’ve noticed an aversion to extending consideration on to clients’ businesses – shareholder’s agreements; key person cover – and other generations, be they older or younger than the primary client.

Then for both accountants and financial planners, some are wary about getting too involved for one or more of these reasons –

  • Concerns about the appetite of clients to pay for the service, over and above the legal fees which will be incurred
  • Lack of a defined product to provide in this area
  • Lack of systems to deliver the product cost effectively
  • Lack of knowledge and/or confidence to advise clients in this area

However, a conversation along the lines of “How would your family and your business be placed tomorrow if something happened to you today?” is undoubtedly in your clients’ best interests and therefore should be pursued. Such a discussion should cover not just estate planning but insurance and what other arrangements which should be in place.

Referring to a lawyer is insufficient

I submit that it is simply inadequate to glibly refer clients off to a lawyer to get a will prepared, all care but no responsibility.

For clients of any complexity, having your client with a blank mind sitting down with a lawyer with a blank legal pad is tantamount to negligence. As their trusted financial adviser, you have knowledge which will greatly assist the lawyer in preparing not just wills but pulling all the relevant aspects of your clients’ estate planning arrangements together.

One doesn’t have to look too far to find situations where there are significant issues to be considered:

  • Where assets are held in superannuation funds and other entities
  • Where this is a case for a child maintenance trust, particularly post marital separation
  • Asset protection measures, particularly for clients in business
  • Business assets, particularly where there are arm’s length stakeholders involved
  • The desire to create and leave a legacy – for family members and good causes

No matter how talented the lawyer, the final outcome will be all the better for the input from the primary financial adviser.

The minimum standard

Ideally, the firm will have had a significant interaction with each and every client about their estate planning arrangements. A signed acknowledgement by clients who choose not to use the firm’s services would be the minimum standard.

Better still, clients will perceive value in involving their financial adviser in this aspect of their affairs.

The commercial opportunity

In an era where there is increasing concern about core services becoming commoditised, estate planning provides a wonderful opportunity for advisers to provide truly remarkable assistance to their clients.

To convert this into a profitable revenue stream will however require a solid plan and great execution. It also needs a passionate True Believer in the business to ensure the initiative reaches its potential.

In truth, coming up with such a plan is not particularly difficult. I wager that most experienced practitioners could come up with something quite suitable within a couple of hours. If given sufficient priority, most other inputs to the process – knowledge, systems, technology – can readily be assembled to then provide the service.

There are however a few elements which will contribute to success in this area

  • Quality, consistent marketing – to keep clients not only aware that the firm provides this service but to educate them as to why they need it.
  • Good tools with which to interact with clients. Scenario planning for example is enhanced by having software which can quickly construct and adjust a client’s family tree. Information gathering can be accelerated by workbooks that clients are requested to complete before meeting with their adviser. Clients can be educated on important concepts in leveraged ways, such as film clips and/or eBooks. Defined services with pre-set prices and efficient templates help to ensure the service is undertaken with good recovery.
  • Aligning with the right lawyer. If you are going to be in this field, then you need to combine forces with a switched on lawyer who specialises in estate planning. Also, work out how to extract efficiencies from your collaboration. On your files or in your head is most likely everything that the lawyer will need. How then can you provide this in a manner which will make it easiest for the necessary documents to be prepared?
  • Getting the financial aspects right. This follows on from the last point. Valuable as it might be, few clients have an open cheque book for this service. If the lawyer charges at or above what the client is comfortable in paying, then no matter how great your service, you won’t get paid. For best results, refer your work to a lawyer who not only is great at estate planning but charges a competitive price.

Client loyalty will also be considerably enhanced by providing this service. Quite simply, the bonds formed with the client throughout the estate planning process will add considerably to the lifetime value of the relationship, which in turn will boost annual profits and your business’s value.

Conclusion

As your client’s primary financial adviser, there is a compelling case to take an active role in your clients’ estate planning.

Scott Charlton is a director of Slipstream Coaching.

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