Developing a comprehensive estate plan with an experienced legal professional can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Not having an estate plan in place and operational at the time of death can cost both time and money in the form of unnecessary complications and taxes for the estate's heirs. This is the reason many wealthy individuals decide to create estate plans in the first place; there is general agreement that having an estate plan can help ensure that the greatest amount of an estate's assets make it to the designated people and organizations. Unfortunately, many plans never become real, getting derailed before documents are drafted and executed and the trusts, partnerships and other legal structures are created. We spoke separately to trust and estate attorneys and affluent individuals to compare their views on the situation and understand why.

Nonchalant Professionals
In 2003, and again in 2006, we conducted separate surveys with trust and estate attorneys who had designed and prepared estate plans for wealthy clients that were not implemented. Given the amount of effort and expertise it takes to develop an estate plan, we were surprised to find almost no concern among these attorneys for their clients' lack of follow-through. In 2003, just 17% of them expressed concern, and the number dropped sharply to about 7% three years later (Exhibit 1).

Next, we asked about the type of follow-up initiated by the attorneys to encourage plan implementation. Roughly 80% of the attorneys that expressed concern about their clients' inaction sent letters or e-mails suggesting they come in to sign their documents. Very few-only 13% of them-initiated personal contact either by calling or arranging a meeting (Exhibit 2). While those figures may seem grim, the lack of follow-up by unconcerned attorneys was startling. More than 80% of them met the clients' lack of action with their own inaction and did nothing to promote further activity. Just 17% sent letters and e-mails, and only 1% placed phone calls.

The reasons behind the attorneys' apathy lie in the very nature of the trust and estate business. It is largely transactional, meaning that lawyers are retained to work on a specific project or plan. Estate plans are long-term initiatives-designed to work over a period of many years-so once a project or a plan has been completed, the lawyers must find new clients. In effect, they close the books and move on without dwelling on whether their plan ever makes it to fruition. Furthermore, once a client has paid his bill, making sure the documents are signed becomes less important.

While this seems to be the status quo, it is an unsustainable situation for both trust and estate attorneys and for the wealthy individuals who need estate planning expertise.

Dissatisfied Customers
To understand why many wealthy individuals choose not to follow through on their estate planning efforts, we constructed survey samples in 2003 and 2006 of families that had net worths in excess of $10 million and that had not implemented their plans.

The overriding reason cited in both studies was that the plan did not satisfy the families' goals, wants and objectives (Exhibit 3). Many clients begin the process not knowing exactly what they want or are unable to express it clearly, hoping that the attorney will be able to guide them through the process and help them crystallize their priorities and values. In the case of abandoned estate plans, the attorneys had been clearly unsuccessful in identifying their clients' core issues but proceeded with plan development anyway.

Furthermore, most families felt uncomfortable with the attorney they had retained, which had a direct impact on their interest in pursuing the process. Unease is a typical reaction when service professionals are perceived as poor listeners, are not appropriately empathetic, function clinically or are not consultative in their approach. An interesting and perhaps related finding is that dissatisfaction among clients escalated in the three years between studies while concern among attorneys diminished.

It's worth noting that roughly half of the families surveyed in both studies felt their estate plans were too complicated to implement. Oddly, though, most affluent families expect sophisticated and intricate strategies from their attorneys to protect their wealth. Nevertheless, it's clear that many trust and estate lawyers fail to assess their clients' level of knowledge about estate planning and their comfort with complexity, and do a feeble job explaining abstract legal concepts to laypeople.

Confusing And Condescending
Adding insult to injury, it seems that many trust and estate attorneys have other weaknesses when it comes to client interaction. Most of the families surveyed said they were unable to determine if the final plan presented by their attorney was, in fact, going to help them accomplish their objectives (Exhibit 4). Their attorneys did not, or could not, explain how the plan would work and their role in the process. Clients felt further alienated by the lawyers' overuse of legal jargon and condescending behavior. Further analysis revealed that the perception of arrogance was derived from the consistent use of legal terminology, a "presumptuous air of authority," and the unwillingness to devote extra time to helping clients understand the details and nuances of their plan.

First « 1 2 » Next