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Perspectives on Estate Planning: An Essential (and Delicate) ‘Ask’

November 10, 2021

On a recent Dynamic Resource Call, “Conversation & Collaboration: An Attorney’s Take on Estate Planning,” Dynamic COO Craig Morningstar welcomed Bernard (Bernie) Rethore, J.D. He’s the managing partner of Phoenix-based Pfarr & Rethore, P.C.., an established law firm specializing in estate planning, probate and trust administration.

“The majority of Rethore’s estate planning clients are brought to him by financial advisors,” Morningstar noted, “who play a critical role in the introduction.”

With three decades’ experience in all facets of asset transfer and wealth preservation, including foundational and sophisticated estate and tax planning, charitable estate planning and more, Rethore underscored the importance of working collaboratively with “all the client’s professionals,” from the CPA to the wealth advisor, to develop an estate plan for a client with the collective wisdom of all.

“Each one of those groups brings a different viewpoint and we frankly think that the divergent viewpoint gives the client a better plan,” said Rethore on the resource call that took place on Oct. 21 during National Estate Planning Awareness Week.

The public campaign is designed to educate consumers on why an estate plan is essential to financial wellness. According to Caring.com, only 32% of the U.S. population currently has a will, down from 51% in 2005. Also, approximately 30 to 40% of consumers don’t know whether their parents have a will or what’s in their parents’ wills, according to Brookdale Senior Living.

A sensitive subject

So why are people avoiding—or procrastinating—estate planning? Rethore noted that many mistakenly think that wills and trusts are only for the wealthy. However, many others find the topic uncomfortable to think about or discuss.

When it comes to estate planning, Rethore’s No. 1 best practice for wealth advisors is, “You should be asking your clients if they’ve done estate planning.

“Ideally, your initial questionnaire does this and gives the client an opportunity to respond in their own handwriting,” added Rethore. He suggests advisors make a note of their response for their file.

According to Rethore, it’s not uncommon for heirs to go back to the financial advisor upon the death of a parent-client and ask why there’s no estate plan or why the planning isn’t up to date to reflect life changes. Advisors need to protect themselves and at least raise the issue with their clients, advised Rethore.

“You need to review this issue time and time again to reflect the pattern of asking the question so you can show it wasn’t a one-time ask.”

But how do wealth advisors ask the question about estate planning, knowing this can be a sensitive subject for many clients?

“It’s not so easy,” said Dan Solin, “all questions are not created equal.” Solin is a recognized wealth advisory coach and a New York Times bestselling author. His latest book, “Ask: How to Relate to Anyone” sets forth transformative research on the power of asking questions to increase conversion rates and deepen relationships.

Solin says, “Asking a client whether they’ve done an estate plan isn’t the same as discussing risk tolerance or investment objectives.”

When an advisor approaches a client about estate planning, there are many assumptions that shouldn’t be made, according to Solin. For example, don’t assume because it’s a financial matter that it’s something the client believes is in the advisor’s realm of experience. Or, that estate planning is a topic they even want to discuss with their advisor.

Solin suggests this non-threatening way to ask this delicate question: “‘How would you like me to approach the subject of estate planning with you, if at all?’”

“Now you’re empowering your client, giving them an opportunity to tell you, ‘I’d like not to discuss this with you,’ if that’s their preference.

“You could ask a follow-up question, ‘Would you like to discuss why you feel that way?’ Maybe there’s a reason why they don’t want to talk about it. So, before we assume clients want our advice on estate planning, why not ask them in a way that shows respect and interest in genuinely hearing their response?”

He adds, “There’s a little nuance here between ‘How would you like me to approach the subject of estate planning?’ and ‘Do you have one?’ One is empowering; the other may be perceived as presumptuous and make the client feel defensive.”

As with all conversations with clients, advisors should seize the opportunity to empower them by asking engaging questions. Your relationships with your clients only stand to benefit.

Photo: Jon Tyson, Unsplash