Backwards Planning

In my 19 years as an estate planning attorney, I’ve noticed that many of the things we do as attorneys seem backward. The consequence of backward estate planning is dire, causing failed estate plans and fractured family relationships. To ensure a successful estate plan, we must reverse the way we view many of the common estate planning practices:

  • “Read the Will” prior to, not after, someone dies. In a family meeting, discuss your estate plan. What better time to reveal and clarify intentions than when we are alive.
  • It is not solely the document that makes up a sound estate plan, it is the underlying intent that provides the foundation for each document.
  • Start with “why”, then get to the “how” and “what.” Often lawyers want to rush into telling people what to do without exploring the client’s desires and hopes. If we don’t start with asking why the client wants to complete a plan, the what and how will miss the mark.
  • Stop the tail from chasing the dog. Meaning, lawyers often prioritize artificial tax planning over spending time in the relational aspects of estate planning, only to see that while we may minimize taxes, relationships fail.
  • Mend relationships now. We often avoid strained relationships, and leave it to the estate plan to speak to fractured relationships. While some relationships are not “fixable,” now is the time to try.
  • What is most important is not only equal distribution of assets to our children, but also preserving and nurturing the relationships between those we leave behind.
  • We might feel that it is only the worth (dollars and cents) of our assets that is important. However when pressed, most of us feel it is the value (emotion/relational) of our gift that is our most important legacy.
  • Change “I just completed my plan, now I’m done” to: “I just completed my plan and now I’m ready to start.” Once you’ve signed your estate planning documents, I believe you’ve just started the estate planning process because life changes. Now you’ve committed to something that you can review as change occurs.
  • It’s not an entitlement to receive an inheritance. It’s a loving gift.
  • “It’s family so we don’t have to write legal instructions.” It is because it is family, there is much at stake. The clearer the communicate, the better chance for a successful estate plan.