Oct 23

Estate Planning: “Last Best” Advice

A long time ago, a client had an unusual and refreshing spin on my regular inquiry at a client meeting about what she wanted to accomplish in her estate planning, and she really caused me to think and feel.

That client asked me for the last advice that I’d impart to her – if I were on my deathbed.  She said that in constructing her estate plan, we’d start with that most important advice, and then work back from there. In other words, she was asking me for the nuggets of advice that I would consider so important that I would expend my final breaths on that advice-My “last best” advice.

Wow! I had to think about that carefully.

The last advice that I would give? Ever?

I wouldn’t really have the luxury of time in which to give my final advice (I’m dying after all). I only have about 750 or so words to spare here.

Final words?

Here goes.

Involve your family!

Involve your family directly in your estate planning decisions. Your estate and financial planning decisions have ramifications and impacts upon your family and loved ones  (including key employees in your company). These impacts can be financial, social and financial, and your decisions can and will affect their social relationships, jobs and even health.

Since your family and loved ones probably are going to be changed by the results of your estate plan, why not involve them in its formulation? Even if someone is not going to get what he or she wants (or feels that he or she deserves), it usually is better for the other survivors to have had everyone know your plans while you are still alive.

Otherwise, a complainer might deny that this was your real intention. Or they might accuse the survivors who fared better of plotting against them. The prospects for challenge or acrimony increase dramatically when bad news is sprung on people who then feel trapped and without an option other than to attack.

One of the biggest problems in estate fights is that the “star of the show” has already departed this great world’s stage. The job of the litigants and the court is to ferret out, often with only indirect evidence, which usually is colored by the position or feelings of the giver of that evidence, what you really intended and whether you were of sound mind and free from undue influence when you did it.

Avoid planning paralysis:

I offer the following as a possible explanation for the avoidance of doing estate planning “planning paralysis.” Planning paralysis is a feeling of helplessness or a fear of feeling helpless about the estate planning process. It also is a feeling that arises when people are dazed by the staggering number of estate planning options and decisions. We all like to be our own persons. We each want to control our own destiny.

I suspect the real reason that most people are slow to either begin or follow through on estate planning is a fear of loss of control. Individuals fear the unknown, the “ride” the advisor will put you on once you get started with estate planning. I firmly believe that people’s fear of loss of control manifests itself in procrastination. Someone may feel that he or she lacks the requisite knowledge of the “bricks” of estate planning to intelligently debate, discern and decide with them.

There is no question that your estate plan should be much more important to you than to your estate planning advisors. Advisors can and indeed should push a client only so far. However, an advisor should at least assist a client with drawing a clear picture as to why the client has not made progress with an estate plan. Once a client understands the real reason why he or she has not progressed, the client should at   least be able to begin the process of dealing with his or her obstacles in the way of the estate plan that the client actually wants and understands.

One more time:

  • Get family members informed and involved.
  • Make sure you are listening – as well as talking – to each other.
  • And don’t let planning paralysis stop you. Do what you need to do to make intelligent and caring decisions.
  • Most of all, don’t delay, because time IS of the essence – and no one knows if your time may be up – soon.

Like mine is.

Godspeed.

Paul Hood is a “recovering” tax lawyer with over 25 years in tax law and estate planning. He received undergraduate and law degrees from Louisiana State University, and an LL.M. in taxation from Georgetown University Law Center.

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