The Montana Estate Lawyer

Friday, January 5, 2018

Choosing Your Estate Planning Team

Here are some tips when choosing an estate planning team, as set forth in Keith’s book, “Introduction to Estate Planning – How to Protect and Pass on Your Legacy,” Bardolf & Company, 2017.

The Importance of a Team

You will do your best planning if you work with a team. You want the expertise that different professionals bring to the table. A team also helps in a very practical way: getting something done! It doesn't do much good to design a great estate plan if you never put it in place. Planning with a team will help you stay the course to implement your plan, and actually do something for you and your family.

The Members of Your Team

You will need an attorney. The attorney will be primarily responsible for the documents, diagrams, asset ownership arrangements, and beneficiary designations. The attorney is usually also the "quarterback'' of your planning team. He or she will be responsible for the logistics (setting up meetings, distributing meeting minutes and other documents, communicating constantly with you to make sure you're happy with the process).

Although your attorney may be most familiar with the "nuts and bolts" of the planning strategies, your other advisors will likely have important ideas to contribute. Of course, a lot of planning relates to taxes. Now, with the high federal estate tax exemption, income tax planning is more important than ever, and that's the accountant's forte.

You may have been working with your accountant for many years. If so, your accountant not only knows a lot about your business and financial affairs, but also your family and personal issues. The accountant can help by raising important issues that you either haven't focused on, or just have forgotten to mention.

Your financial advisor also may know a lot about your family and issues, which should be dealt with in planning. Furthermore, your estate planning needs to take into account not only the size of your estate, but its composition. Many times life insurance is something to at least consider. Your financial advisor or life insurance agent is the expert on that.

It's great if all your advisors actually attend meetings with you and your attorney. At a minimum you should authorize and encourage your attorney to keep your advisors in the loop and to solicit their advice throughout the process.

You Need Team Players

Your team is only going to work if the team members respect one another and rely upon one another and their expertise. This is not always easy for professionals! We lawyers are especially famous for outsized egos. By the same token accountants are by reputation conservative and not outgoing. They're often not used to working in teams with other professionals. Financial advisors may be reluctant to work with lawyers and accountants, whom financial advisors and insurance salesman often see as "deal killers." The professionals need to get over these predisposed notions, and work as a team for you.

You Want an Attorney that Listens

All too often attorneys assume that it's their job to do their clients' thinking for them, and just to tell them what to do. They see themselves as the experts on what their clients should do and think. But real help is giving people the framework in which to generate their own ideas first.

You may not know what you want or need for your estate planning. You haven't had the opportunity to really think about your planning or to verbalize your thoughts. You may not really know how you feel about things. And, yes, there are a number of issues involved in estate planning that you probably don't know about. But, usually the brain that contains the problem also contains the solution—often the best one. That means that, with help from your attorney, you will be the one who comes up with the best answers.

So, you want an attorney who wants to know what you think, who you are, and what matters to you. It is critical that your attorney be able—and willing—to really listen to you. Without interruptions. Without offering advice before all the facts and concerns are on the table. And without talking just to show how smart or knowledgeable he or she is. That means the most important expertise in the attorney you want to work with is the ability to generate your finest independent thinking.


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