Estate planning beyond the documents: empowering client decision-making

The wide reaches of estate planning + the role of estate planning lawyers
Estate planning is usually associated with the legal documents, but its significance reaches far beyond the paperwork to the outcomes of real families. Estate planning can have a drastic ripple effect on the relationships within the wider familial network and financial success (or not) of the client’s loved ones. The ripples grow wider still as financial outcomes have the potential to impact mental health, education, and employment opportunities (to name just a few).

As estate planning lawyers we play a pivotal role in guiding clients not only through the intricacies of legal documents but also in helping them understand the broader implications of their decisions. This article delves into the scope of estate planning lawyers to step into their role as educator and guide clients on the intent and impact of their choices.

The traditional “straight laced” approach
In years past it was common for consults to be limited to a bird’s eye view of the terms in and functions of an estate plan, taking instructions on names and gifts to be included, and other big-ticket items. There was limited exploration of the client’s emotional and familial aspects, if at all.

We’ve come leaps and bounds in identifying and appreciating the emotional complexity in legal matters (and in people generally), yet a bird’s eye approach to estate planning still (unfortunately) continues in many practices today. In part this is symptomatic of attempting to minimise time and maximise profitability. I suspect this is also in part due to:
• a disregard for the depth and range of emotional factors underpinning estate planning; and
• a wish to stay away from the “touchy feely” in what is traditionally a stiff and “straight laced” profession.

Where legal + technical meets familial + personal
Estate planning is a fusion of the familial and personal with legal and technical. In my view it is a disservice to the client to attempt to remove the familial and personal – after all, clients wanting to protect and provide for their loved ones is largely the basis for undertaking their estate planning.

A successful estate plan goes beyond financial considerations, functional drafting, and meeting technical requirements. A holistic approach integrates the emotional, familial, and financial. This not only enhances the plan’s effectiveness but also addresses the broader needs of the client and their loved ones.

Impact of family dynamics
Family dynamics play a crucial role in estate planning decisions. Unequal distributions, blended families, and differing expectations can create conflicts that require delicate navigation. Estate planning lawyers are well aware these complexities must be considered in advising the client and in the client’s decision making.

However, the impact of family dynamics goes beyond risk and conflict mitigation. Each client has a unique network of family, loved ones, and other key stakeholders. That means a unique blend of power dynamics, responsibilities, hopes, and future needs. Here estate planning lawyers have a golden opportunity to kick into problem solving mode to craft solutions that meet the emotional and familial goals for the estate plan, moving beyond just the financials and risk mitigation. Team this with strategic drafting and you’re on your way to a high value and holistic estate plan.

Empowerment and informed decisions
Empowering clients with the knowledge to make informed decisions is a cornerstone of effective counselling. By taking on the role of educators, simplifying complex legal concepts and providing clients with the information they need to understand the consequences of their choices, we empower clients to make informed decisions. Informed decisions lead to peace of mind for the client and an appropriate strategy to meet the client’s goals for their estate plan.

Building an environment of open communication is essential for successful estate planning. Lawyers ought to adopt techniques that encourage clients to openly share their wishes, concerns, and priorities. Empathetic listening and non-judgmental support play a crucial role in open communication. Exploring the practicalities of the client’s choices and possible alternatives with kindness and compassion can alleviate the client’s stress and overwhelm, and allow them to feel supported in their decision-making and the estate plan process.

The robustness + appropriateness of the plan
Lawyers facilitating conversations that reality test the clients wishes is key to testing the robustness and appropriateness of the estate plan strategy. There is little point for the client having a particular estate plan strategy if it is doomed for failure. Oftentimes this is due to the familial and emotional aspects underpinning the estate plan. For example, the client nominating joint control positions when those loved ones have an acrimonious relationship. Or the client including certain terms or directions because they feel they “have to” to appease certain family members. The way to get to the crux of these issues is by exploring the familial and emotional aspects, in addition to the financial.

A holistic approach
Estate planning involves a nuanced dance of understanding clients’ wishes, devising tailored strategies, and navigating succession law. Our role as estate planning lawyers extends beyond drafting documents to guiding clients through the complex interplay of family dynamics, asset, financial, and tax considerations, and the client’s goals for their estate plan. By educating effectively, empowering clients to make informed decisions, and creating an environment of open and supportive communication, we help clients create estate plans that are not only legally sound, but also address the broader needs of the client and their loved ones.

This blog was written by Jacqui Thomas, Director and Lawyer at Sun Wills & Estates, and featured in Queensland Law Society’s Proctor.

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