Only about half of Americans have a will or living trust in place. The advantages of a will or trust might seem obvious to estate planning attorneys, but the statistics show that a sizeable portion of the American population doesn’t recognize the value of an estate plan.
Many of those Americans view estate planning as a tool for the rich. The average person couldn’t possibly possess the assets to make the cost of establishing an estate plan worthwhile, right? Of course, the benefits of estate planning reach all income levels. Demystifying estate planning is one of the key responsibilities of an estate planning attorney and a critical step toward winning new clients for your estate planning practice. Fortunately, WealthCounsel’s Estate Planning Awareness Survey found that nearly half of Americans (46%) are interested in learning more about estate planning.
Estate planning attorneys need to close the knowledge gaps and help Americans better understand the benefits and importance of estate planning. The truth is: while nobody likes thinking about death, failing to implement proper estate planning can have significant financial and legal ramifications.
An estate plan allows your clients to control their property while they’re alive, provide for themselves and their families in the event of incapacitation, minimize the impact of fees and taxes, and distribute their assets to whomever they want, when they want. More specifically, spouses, partners, parents, and homeowners all have reason to consider estate plans regardless of their net worth.
Conveying these benefits and putting in place the building blocks for sustainable growth are critical to your success as an estate planning attorney. This guide will give you the resources and tools you need prepare yourself for success.
Estate Planning Education
It’s clear there are knowledge gaps in American estate planning. For starters, average Americans can’t seem to come to a consensus about whether a will or a trust is the most effective estate planning tool. Forty-seven percent think a trust is the better option, while 53% believe that a will is best. More than a third (37%) simply don’t believe they have sufficient assets to warrant an estate plan. Let’s look at how you can overcome misconceptions by providing your clients with estate planning education.
Why is estate planning important?
Conveying the value of estate planning and fundamental estate planning concepts to current and potential clients will help you grow your estate planning practice. While you might take the universal benefits a given, many Americans simply don’t understand the value. Your job is to communicate the importance of estate planning clearly and simply. A comprehensive estate plan allows your clients to:
- Facilitate the preservation of wealth
- Control property while they are alive and well
- Provide for themselves and loved ones if they become incapacitated
- Give what they have to whomever they want, the way they want, when they want
- Facilitate the transfer of a family business
- Minimize the impact of fees and taxes
Trusts vs. Wills
So, what tool is best for achieving these goals? In most cases, a revocable living trust-based estate plan is a better, more comprehensive choice for your clients. That said, you should also advise your clients to use a pour-over will to take care of any assets not in their trust and to name a guardian for any minor children.
Trusts are more comprehensive estate planning tools for a number of reasons, but the most prominent motivations for choosing a trust-based estate plan are avoiding probate and maintaining privacy.
Avoiding probate with a trust-based estate plan
Unlike trusts, wills are subject to probate, the court-supervised collection and distribution of assets. Therefore, it’s helpful to consider how difficult the probate process is in your client’s state of residence. California, for example, is notorious for its long and costly probate process. The probate process in New Jersey is comparatively short and inexpensive.
Even if your client resides in a state where probate is an easy process, a will might not protect them as comprehensively as a trust. Trusts tend to be a better vehicle for estate planning because they keep all elements under one roof and are easier to manage.
Maintaining privacy with a trust-based estate plan
Trusts are private, so no one can tell what assets might be in the trust, who the beneficiaries might be, or what a beneficiary of a trust will receive. Wills, on the other hand, are public record, and information in the will is accessible to anyone making a public records request.
As an attorney with an estate planning practice, you’re responsible for counseling your clients, presenting them with the available estate-planning options, and advising them on the best possible strategy. Trusts offer comprehensive advantages that can be realized regardless of your client’s net worth.
Additionally, if you use estate planning software in your practice, drafting a trust-based estate plan is no more difficult than drafting a will. With a revocable living trust template built into the software, it’s easy to craft a comprehensive estate-planning solution for your clients.
Preparing for incapacity
In addition to a trust, a comprehensive estate plan should also include documents that help your clients prepare for incapacity. Financial Powers of Attorney and an Healthcare Advance Directive allow clients to authorize an agent to manage important medical and day-to-day financial affairs in the event of incapacity. These responsibilities could include important medical decisions, financial transactions, and providing for family members. Let’s take a closer look at these documents:
- Financial Powers of Attorney can specify important distinctions for scope and timing of control for these responsibilities. Specific responsibilities might include management of a real estate portfolio, for example.
- Healthcare Advance Directives include Healthcare Power of Attorney, Living Wills and HIPPA Authorization. These components authorize an agent to manage non-end-of-life healthcare decisions, specify end-of-life wishes, and establish who can receive medical information on behalf of the patient.
How to Market Estate Planning
Providing estate planning education and conveying its benefits should play an integral part in your marketing efforts, but how can you reach your target demographics? You simply cannot overlook your marketing strategy.
Many attorneys struggle with law practice marketing, but deploying an effective marketing plan is key to separating your offering from other estate planning attorneys and growing your practice and revenue. A few strategic steps can go a long way toward establishing your practice in a crowded market.
Attracting and retaining clients
Before you can deploy your marketing plan, you need to establish who you’ll market to and why. Many attorneys get offtrack with their marketing plans because they don’t identify the pain points of their target demographics and fail to meet their audience where they are.
Defining your audience will help you focus your budget and time on messaging that connects with specific people rather than trying to reach everyone. As an example, are you looking for young- to middle-aged couples with children and a home or established professionals nearing retirement? Both of these demographics are more likely to produce results than single twenty-somethings fresh out of college.
Next, rethink the traditional marketing approaches associated with estate planning. Phone book listings and dinner seminars aren’t enough in the modern market full of clients who constantly consume digital content through a variety of channels. Your target demographics are much more likely to watch a YouTube video, read legal blogs, check social media, and talk with friends, family, and colleagues than they are to sign up for dinner and a slideshow at the local golf club or event venue.
Modern direct-to-client marketing channels are more effective — and more affordable — than ever. The digital age has opened up new channels that allow you to reach a larger audience, including social media and webinars.
Social media can be extremely effective for keeping in touch with existing clients, reaching new ones, and expanding your referral network. However, it’s critical to choose the right social media channel. Forget Snapchat and focus your efforts on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
On Twitter, you can share content you’ve created on other channels or quickly share thoughts. LinkedIn will help you reach professional and more highly educated users. You can use this network to post content about the value of estate planning or latest news, like celebrities dying without a will and new legislation. These regular posts will help you establish yourself as an estate planning expert and help you reach more potential clients.
How to market estate planning services to different demographics
The pain points for different demographics will vary. What parents need from estate planning won’t be the same as what business owners or childless couples need. Choosing your messaging carefully can help you reach each of these markets effectively.
While the benefits of estate planning to middle-aged parents are more obvious (designating guardians for minor children, preserving wealth through generations, etc.), the advantages to other growing demographics (with corresponding buzzwords) like Millennials and DINKs aren’t as clear, but that doesn’t mean these groups aren’t valuable prospects.
Marketing estate planning to DINKs
The growing Dual Income No Kids (DINKs) market represents an area of opportunity for estate planning attorneys. These adults won’t have the same motivations for estate planning as parents, but they can still benefit from an estate plan and your legal marketing strategies need to adapt when speaking this demographic.
One of biggest reasons DINKs should consider an estate plan is healthcare planning. As we discussed earlier, Financial Powers of Attorney and Healthcare Advance Directives allow clients to authorize an agent to manage medical and day-to-day financial affairs in the event of incapacity. These responsibilities include important medical decisions, financial transactions, and providing for family members.
An estate plan can also help DINKs achieve their goals. Couples who elect not to have children often have more money to devote to personal or charitable causes. DINKs may be less concerned about preserving wealth for future generations, but they may still want to distribute assets to friends, family members, or charity. An estate plan can help your clients make these decisions, designating who will receive what and when.
Marketing estate planning to Millennials
Millennials are an increasingly valuable market for estate planning attorneys. The demographic now represents more than a quarter of the U.S. population. Plus, this generation understands the value of attorneys in the estate planning process: 73% of Millennials think an attorney is an essential element in creating an estate plan.
To connect with Millennials, it is important to explain why estate planning is beneficial and why even the young and healthy need to plan for the future. Whether they believe it or not, Millennials will grow old. The days of bungee jumping and world travelling will inevitably come to an end, and it will be time to settle down.
Estate planning for Millennials can help facilitate the preservation of wealth, manage their assets, and also provide peace of mind. Providing Millennial clients estate planning education can require a shift in perspective and tactics. The benefits of estate planning aren’t always the same, so attorneys must adapt and meet these clients on their terms. For example, “assets” might mean something different to Millennials (like a record collection rather than stocks and bonds). Connecting with Millennials about what’s important to them is critical to winning their business.
Marketing estate planning to parents
Becoming a parent is a common motivator for adults to consider estate planning. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, an estate plan helps parents designate guardians for minor children in the event something happens to the parents.
Additionally, establishing a trust for children as part of an estate plan can help preserve assets or guarantee future care. But, what about the negative connotations of “trust fund kids”? It’s a common question and concern. Many parents, regardless of wealth, worry about spoiling their children, but parents who have amassed great wealth, often worry about fund the lifestyle of idle rich children who aren’t motivated to work or further their education.
Trusts can be used to incentivize achievement. In fact, so-called “incentive trusts” are increasingly common estate planning tools. Put simply, incentive trusts impose restrictions on distributions. For example, an incentive trust might require beneficiaries to graduate from college or even achieve a certain grade point average in order to receive money from the fund. They could require employment or charitable work, and reduce or cut off distributions for beneficiaries who fail to meet the requirements.
Estate plans have wide-ranging benefits that can help a variety of demographics achieve their goals. Selecting the right benefits for your marketing campaigns will help you differentiate your practice from the competition and win clients.
How to build a successful estate planning practice
Building a successful practice isn’t just about marketing. You need to implement the right tools and practice good habits in order to meet your goals. Good habits and best practices include:
- Being trustworthy
- Educating clients
- Making connections (networking)
- Reducing typos and document errors
- Leveraging the right tools for the job
- Staying up to date on the latest news and regulations
- Investing in relationships
Let’s take a closer look at a few of these best practices.
Cut out typos and document errors
Even strong writers make typos from time to time. It’s easy to brush off a typo as a simple error, and in some cases that may be true. However, even slight mistakes can can cost you clients and your reputation. Here are a few ways you can reduce typos and errors in your legal documents.
- Review your work carefully. It sounds simple, but it’s easier said than done. Finishing a document, giving it a quick glance for review, and marking it “done” is easy, but it’s also a recipe for errors. Take a five or 10-minute break before you start to review, insead. Even better, take a walk, clear your head, and then come back to the document.
- Ask a colleague. It’s easy to miss errors when you’ve been staring at the same document for three hours. If you employ administrative staff or share your practice with other attorneys, ask them to take a look at your documents. A de facto editor might see something you missed in your first review.
- Use document drafting software. Comprehensive document drafting software for attorneys can help eliminate document errors. Software that populates language preferences (i.e. my, our, the) and custom terms (i.e. grantor, marital, family), throughout a document will ensure your documents are correct and consistent.
Streamline your operations with the right tools
Let’s take a closer look at document drafting software. If you consistently find errors and typos in your legal documents, you should probably consider investing in estate planning software. Here’s the functionality and features you should look for:
- Document customization. The best estate planning software solutions offer the capability to customize documents based on term and clause preferences.
- Usability. Easy-to-navigate software will help your support staff craft complex documents for you, freeing up more time to work directly with clients and share your expertise.
- Comprehensive list of documents. Document drafting software should provide access to a comprehensive list of documents, including wills, trusts and client letters.
Ultimately, estate planning software should empower both you and your support staff to efficiently and accurately craft complex documents.
Build your practice through networking
Your network will provide your greatest source of client prospects and estate planning knowledge. A solid network of attorneys and other professionals can offer a valuable source of knowledge and experience. Financial advisors and accountants also have the connections and knowledge to benefit your practice.
If you don’t have a network in place, consider attending an estate planning conference to meet fellow estate planning attorneys and professionals. If your local community includes attorneys or financial advisors, consider starting an informal group where members can discuss the latest news, legislation, or challenging cases.
Educate yourself and your clients
Continuing legal education (CLE) can feel like an obligation rather than an opportunity. Yes, it’s a requirement, but many attorneys just go through the motions without using the requirements to their advantage. Obtaining your CLE credits is a way for you to learn about new techniques and practices that you can take back to your clients. Here’s how.
- Join a membership program. Get the most bang for your CLE bucks by joining a membership program that offers additional benefits. A WealthCounsel membership boasts free virtual continuing legal education in addition to practice development tools and other valuable resources.
- Attend a conference. If you’re looking for a way complete your CLE requirements quickly, consider attending an estate planning conference. Panels and seminars at these events are a great way to stay up to date on the latest developments in the legal world and learn something new along the way.
Estate Planning in 2017 and Beyond
It’s impossible to forecast the future of the estate planning industry, or your practice for that matter, with certainty. You can plan for the future, however. That planning should be at both the macro and micro levels, adjusting for future legislation and preparing to expand your estate planning practice.
The future of estate planning under the Trump administration
President Donald Trump’s tax plan signals significant change to the American tax code that could alter estate planning strategy during the Trump era. The Trump Administration’s proposed tax reforms include:
- Reducing the number of tax brackets from seven to three (10%, 25% and 35%)
- A flat 15% corporate tax rate
- A territorial tax system (businesses only pay tax on income earned in the U.S.)
- Elimination of the estate tax
Whether or not the plan is voted into law remains to be seen, but smart planners won’t wait to see what happens. Instead, they’ll remaining flexible and take a proactive approach to estate planning that accounts for legislative changes in the immediate and long-term future. Universally beneficial strategies (like revocable living trusts) won’t cease to benefit your clients, even under a new tax plan, so strive to limit your clients’ liability will help them plan for the future and protect their hard-earned assets.
Preparing for practice growth
If you start off as a solo practitioner or in small family office, the prospect of growth can feel at once exciting and intimidating. The responsibility of hiring new staff for your estate planning practice and bringing new faces into your tight-knit office is significant, and you need to make sure you make the right decision or risk wasting valuable time and resources. Hiring new staff is never easy, but you can take a few easy steps to eliminate stress and streamline the process.
- Define areas of need. Before you even post a job listing, ask yourself: where do I truly need help? It’s easy to think you just need another attorney or an administrative assistant, but where are the true gaps in your practice. Is new business slow? Do you have a large backlog of casework? Some simple marketing or new software could help alleviate those problems without the need to hire new staff. Only hire for roles you’re certain will benefit your practice in long run.
- Increase employee buy in. As the leader of your practice, the onus is on you to get your employees to care about their jobs and about your firm. It’s not your staff’s job to manufacture motivation. Create an empowering office environment by conveying why you do what you do and increase the level of ownership amongst your staff by tying their roles directly to the bottom line.
- Train your staff. Hiring someone and assuming they’ll “get it” from day one is a critical error many hiring managers make. Unless you’re hiring a superstar, chances are you’ll need to invest time in training them to do their job effectively. Set expectations and provide them with the resources they need to succeed.
Think Short Term
All this information seems like a lot, but it’s not meant to be implemented wholesale. Each of these sections provides insight into a step you can take to improve your estate planning practice. Make a plan, but start small and think short term. What can you implement in a few hours or a few days that will help you get to where you want to be by the end of the quarter or the end of the year? Simple goals like meeting three new prospects or outlining the bones of a marketing plan might seem small but can produce measurable impact on the future of your practice.