Originally posted at fa-mag.com by Mitch Anthony, September 1, 2023.
Brett was just a green attorney, fresh out of law school when his father, a respected financial advisor, brought a client in to see him about an estate planning issue. His father, who was a master of understanding the emotional side of the business, brought this client to him in part as a learning experience. His father’s client was quite angry with a son’s behavior and character and wanted to write him out of the will.
Brett recalled how his father cringed when he informed the frustrated and angry client that while it was illegal to disinherit children in some countries, the United States was not one of them. He then reminded the client of the irrevocable nature of such a decision and went on to give a full explanation of legal options.
When he was finished, Brett’s father asked Brett if he wouldn’t mind leaving the conference room for a bit.
After the client finally left, his father gave Brett an invaluable object lesson on what really matters in legacy work—and it wasn’t the technical details, as important as they are. He told Brett that he simply asked his client, “How do you want to be remembered?” The question helped to unlock the client’s anger and confusion about what to do. He realized that no matter how badly his son had behaved, he didn’t want to be remembered as a father who rejected him, even from the grave. A more graceful compromise was found—his son was kept in the will, but with some “spendthrift” provisions included.
Because of the wisdom of Brett’s father, the client walked away with a plan for his estate and for his heart, which is at the very center of what estate planning was meant to be (before tax planners took over the process)—a posthumous, material expression of the heart.
The contrast in this story was a young, educated professional trying to utilize his knowledge, and another man more seasoned in the art of human relationships sharing his experience and emotional insights. Brett took his father’s intuitive approach to heart and utilized these insights in his work as the field director of advanced sales for a major insurer, where he helped advisors help families leave a better-quality legacy.
Brett brings a unique perspective to the cases he touches. He finds that he still has to wrestle with the overly technical tendencies that many advisors use to approach estate planning. Many will tell him they “just want the facts,” and Brett will respond that these are the facts—the soft facts. In estate planning, no facts are more important.
His passion is to teach advisors and others working on estate planning the questions that don’t get asked but should. He laments that there is a monomaniacal emphasis on tax planning at the core of estate planning.
Brett’s point is well taken. Here again we see a financial services monologue at work dealing with a peripheral issue (tax efficiency) as if it were the core issue. This obsession with the technical tends to put the heart of the matter (a personal legacy) in the supporting role and puts Uncle Sam and his tax codes in the lead, thereby missing a tremendous opportunity for both service and cementing a broad family relationship. I believe that the financial services industry can do much better with this particular issue by stepping up the context and quality of the dialogue around estate planning.
In “Values-Based Planning: Seeing the Whole Client,” Kris Arnzen suggested advisors ask their clients the following questions:
• How do you want to be remembered?
• How was your wealth created?
• How will you pass on your wisdom as well as your wealth?
• Do you want to leave a societal legacy?
• What is the most important thing you want to accomplish in your life?
Clearly there is a need for a more balanced approach to this critical aspect of financial services. As I discussed in my book, Storyselling Revisited, the lion’s share of communication techniques employed in our industry is weighted to the number-crunching, logic-grinding left brain—largely ignoring a tropical storm of dissatisfied emotion and contextual curiosity. Jeffrey Condon’s Beyond the Grave: The Right Way and the Wrong Way of Leaving Money to Your Children (and Others) is a book that takes a more balanced left-brain/right-brain approach to this topic.
Most books on estate planning explain how to maximize inheritance, minimize taxes, avoid probate, set up trusts, and other technical and tactical details. Condon does this as well, but he also explores the psychological and emotional aspects of leaving and inheriting money—including “protecting” the inheritance from one’s child or spouse, preventing squabbles over inherited property, selecting trustees or guardians, avoiding the disputes between second spouses and children of first marriages, leaving money for pets, and more. The book provides a thorough look at inheritance planning with an eye toward maintaining good, stable family relations well after the estate has been settled.
Well-th Versus Wealth
For the sake of establishing context and priorities in the estate planning process you might want to use a tool like the following list for facilitating the priority-setting aspects of the legacy dialogue. The first suggestion for initiating conversations about estate planning is to call it something else.
For many people, the term “estate planning” conjures up images of rich people in mansions because they don’t really have an “estate.” I’d suggest using the term “well-th transfer” because it places the emphasis on being well when the process is finished, as opposed to the more common and narrow goal of being “tax efficient.”
Financial wellness is one of the most important ways that advisors can add value to clients’ financial lives. In many cases, however, it’s also difficult to define. When it comes to estate planning, emphasizing “well” instead of “wealth” helps to place the tax issue in its proper context and enables clients to see the big picture—much of which is emotional in nature.
The Well-th Transfer Priority List
Directions: Rank your priorities by placing the numbers of the two highest priorities at the top of the list. Place the numbers of the next four highest priorities, and then the numbers of the final four priorities.
1. Heirs understanding the values and principles that produced your wealth.
2. Keeping the peace among family members after you are gone.
3. Minimizing taxation to your assets.
4. Dividing assets fairly and equitably.
5. Reducing the negative impact of sudden wealth on your children and recipients.
6. Ensuring your legacy lives for generations (through a foundation or scholarships, etc.)
7. Transferring your history, experiences and life lessons to your heirs.
8. Investing in the perpetuation and well-being of your choice of charities.
9. Creating a scholarship for a specific type of person or predicament.
10. Not leaving your children with unnecessary burdens after your passing.
Here are some great questions for priming the pump of your client’s personal memory bank (you can either ask your clients these questions, or provide them with these questions and ask them to provide written responses):
• What did you learn about money when you were growing up?
• What are some memorable incidents involving money that impacted your life when you were growing up?
• What were your first experiences earning money?
• What are the important lessons you have learned about earning money?
• Tell me about your financial journey (highlights, lowlights and reflections).
• What are the best money decisions you have made?
• Tell me about some mistakes you made along the way.
• What have you learned about the liberties and limitations of money (what money can and cannot do)?
• What is the lasting legacy you want to leave regarding work and money?
You will be amazed to read your clients’ responses when you ask them to recall an incident involving money that impacted their lives when they were growing up. One client wrote that money was really tight in the small Texas town where he grew up. His mother controlled the money in their household and gave her husband an allowance every week that amounted to enough to play nine holes of golf on the municipal course and buy a week’s worth of chewing tobacco. This client, at age 11, caddied to earn money. One day he carried double bags for two rounds and made more in that one day than his father made in a week. He realized immediately that he had more control over his life than his father did.
We believe the richest legacies your clients can leave are the stories that helped shape their lives. Their personal novels are eminently more interesting, dramatic, and relevant to their loved ones than any fiction selection on the New York Times Best Seller list. We simply need to do a better job capturing and transferring these stories.