How they view the role of the financial advisor.

    It was the English philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon who said riches are for spending. But before your high-net-worth clients can spend or invest the wealth accumulated over a lifetime, they need to find a way to preserve their assets and keep them from the long arm of Uncle Sam. In wealth management today, this often involves forming a relationship between the financial advisor and an estate planning attorney, and devising an estate plan for the client.
    That relationship can be delicate, however. An uneasy alliance, if not properly cultivated, can deteriorate quickly. Yet advisor and attorney are natural allies in this process, with a common goal: to help the client develop or carry out the estate plan that is most suitable for that client.
    Estate attorneys say the relationship should not be adversarial. "I'll see you in court," doesn't apply here. Rather, it should be focused on helping the client achieve his goals. The relationship can be complicated and even jeopardized, however, if advisor and attorney come to the table with separate agendas, and lack open minds in taking into consideration each other's comments and suggestions.
    "I don't look at it as a competitive relationship. We're there to provide a service to the client, and they need someone to provide that service," says Mike Kove, a partner with Kove & Kosakow LLC in New York City.
    Clients are often referred to him by financial advisors who have analyzed the client's needs and assets first, so Kove has a vested interest in making the process go as smoothly as possible. "Most of my clients are not self-generated," he says. "They're recommended by financial planners, brokers, advisors, accountants and insurance agents. I expect it's that way with all of us, to a great degree."
    Financial advisors definitely "add value to what I can bring to the table because I have someone who understands the relationship and goals," says Robert C. Aument, a partner with Daspin & Aument in Oak Brook, Ill. "They can challenge me to make sure I'm doing what I need to be doing. You need an open dialogue because the advisor understands the estate planning process, and as a result can help the client achieve a better plan."
    Jeffrey P. Hart, with Tarlow, Breed, Hart & Rodgers PC in Boston, sees the advisor serving as the quarterback on the client's team of professionals, which could include, besides the planner, an estate attorney, accountant, life insurance professional and an elder care specialist. The advisor's role as quarterback is especially useful, he says, with very wealthy clients with lots of assets and plenty of planning alternatives. "Somebody needs to circle the wagons around the client," Hart says.
    Without question, advisors can and often do bring valuable client data into the relationship process, which makes the job of formulating an estate plan easier. And for that reason, many attorneys favor the advisor attending at least the initial meeting with the lawyer and client.
    "It puts the client at ease and the discussion seems more in depth. There is already a level of trust with their financial advisor, so it helps establish my credibility with the client," says Stephanie J. Edwards, a lawyer with Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis PLLC, in Nashville, Tenn.
    She says financial advisors are helpful in gathering pertinent information like the titling of assets and family background, which the client may not volunteer. "One of the most helpful things is having two professionals encouraging certain goals because it makes the client more likely to follow through on the advice. If the planner has already discussed with the client, for example, creating a life insurance trust to remove the proceeds from the client's estate, then when I bring it up in our client meeting the client is already amenable, and more likely will actually implement it."
    Aument agrees advisors help in his initial assessment of the client's needs, and prefers that they attend the first meeting with the client. "It adds a level of comfort having someone in the room the client can trust. The advisor can help take the mystery out of the process, and assist clients in addressing the difficult nature of the subject matter in dealing with their own mortality."
    Although attendance at initial meetings is encouraged, attorneys split on whether they like advisors present at subsequent meetings with clients. Some defer to the client's wishes. Attorneys definitely don't want advisors present in circumstances involving attorney-client privilege.
    Edwards, for example, defers to the client as to whether the advisor should attend follow up meetings. "I don't have a preference one way or another," she says. If the client has possible adverse issues to discuss, however, say a tax situation, she doesn't want him or, for that matter, any other advisor to the client present. "I don't want to waive the attorney-client privilege," Edwards says.
    Likewise, Hart believes there are certain meetings advisors should not be allowed to attend, usually those in which the client doesn't want to disclose certain things other than to an attorney. These could include private issues affecting the family or the children, or a medical issue. At other times, he says, "The client may have another planner or investment advisor in the picture, and may not want to disclose to one planner how much money he has with the other planner in circumstances where the financial planner is also the money manager."
    Stephen Sutera, an estate lawyer in suburban Chicago, prefers advisors attend his document-signing sessions, which normally last three to four hours and are held after the initial meeting. But he acknowledges the difficulty because of the large commitment of time on the advisor's part.
    One valuable insight the planner can bring to his client, according to Hart, is alerting him when he feels that the estate planning attorney is in over his head. "Sometimes clients have their longtime attorney/friend do the legal work. If that attorney is not an experienced estate planning attorney," Hart relates, "that's a prescription for either the process grinding to a halt or going in the wrong direction."
    How soon should estate attorneys get involved in the process? As soon as possible, many say, to avoid problems later. Others say timing doesn't matter that much. "The earlier we get involved the better," states Edwards. "If the financial advisor has already established an estate planning plan before they come to the attorney, then it's hard for the attorney to deviate from that plan even if it's in the best interests of the client."
    Sutera agrees. "My belief is the sooner the better. When I'm interviewing the client, even though the financial advisor has the family information, we still revisit that information with the client. It's only after we revisit the family information, goals and objectives of the client, that we can really create a plan that is best for the client."
    But Kove says it doesn't matter to him whether the advisor comes up with a plan or not before he sees the client. "They will make certain recommendations, and we'll review them when the client comes to us. In the end, we're going to do what is best for the client anyway. I'm not one of those who will totally disregard an advisor's strategy, but will certainly take it into consideration in developing a plan."
    It is strongly recommended that advisors develop a strategy first, before proposing or recommending a planning product to clients. "Pushing a ' product before putting the strategy into place is like putting the cart before the horse," says Aument, "and doing so is a disservice to the client. If the advisor refers me to the client and brings me in, then the assumption I'm making is that the advisor is looking for my unbiased opinion, which may include disagreeing with a product that the advisor thinks is appropriate."
    Kove says he encounters this situation often. "If we feel (the product) is not suitable for the client we tell them that," he says. "The client should get an opinion from someone who has nothing to do with that proposal, just like you would go to a doctor for a second opinion before an operation."
    The same does not necessarily hold true for investment products, however. Aument has no objection to planners recommending stocks, bonds or mutual funds while the estate plan is in progress. "The exception," he says, "is when the client is going to utilize life insurance as a planning tool," whereupon he prefers being consulted.
    Attorneys increasingly see life insurance as a more substantive part in the overall estate plan, with advisors playing an important role in seeing to it clients are properly insured. Says Sutera: "If you're truly a financial planner, you're kind of (the client's) quarterback, and as the quarterback you should be analyzing whether their life insurance is doing the job it's meant to do." 

Bruce W. Fraser has written for many publications. He can be reached at [email protected].