I had lunch the other day with Vincent Bonazzoli of the Family Estate Planning Law Group in Lynnfield. He has a different approach to estate planning representation that may work better for many attorneys and their clients than more traditional forms of estate planning. He requires all of his clients to participate in his annual maintenance plan so that after he works with them to create an estate plan, he and his firm continue to stay involved to make sure it is properly implemented.
Estate Planning Hiccups
Estate planning attorneys have all seen problems develop due to their lack of continued involvement:
- The revocable trusts that are not funded so that they don't avoid probate.
- Marital tax planning trusts created, but assets not split so there's no estate tax savings.
- Irrevocable MassHealth planning trusts used for the benefit of the donor, despite the terms of the trust.
- Special needs trust funds distributed in such a way that the make the beneficiary ineligible for public benefits.
- Faulty or missing beneficiary designations for retirement plans and life insurance policies.
These problems and missed opportunities can arise for all sorts of reasons, including lack of guidance by the attorney, misunderstanding by the client, or new assets being acquired after the estate plan is complete.
Absence of Communication
The possibility that problems will arise is made all the more likely by the fact that after the work is done, clients are often reluctant to call the attorney and the attorney may be reluctant to take the calls. The client may be concerned that they will be charged for the call and the attorney may be concerned that she will spend time responding, sometimes having to do research or at least review old documents and notes, and not be compensated. Attorney Bonazzoli suggests that these issues can easily be resolved if the client pays an annual retainer that gives him the right to unlimited calls and includes an annual review of the plan and documents.
The possibility that problems will arise is compounded by the way attorneys are taught to practice and the advice they are given by malpractice insurance providers. We are taught to think on a transactional basis. In this model, the client hires the attorney to complete a particular task. Once that task is complete, the representation ends. The client can subsequently hire the attorney for another task, but in between there is no attorney-client relationship. In fact, attorneys are advised to send letters to clients making it very clear that the work is complete so that they will not be on the hook to provide further counsel, for instance if the law changes in a way that affects the estate plan.
But how is the client going to know that the law has changed and he should have his plan reviewed? And if the attorney sends a letter advising him of the change, will the client feel the firm is just fishing for more fees? What if, instead, it's clear that the attorney is responsible for making sure the plan continues to work despite changes in the law and there is no additional fee for having the plan reviewed? Wouldn't both the attorney and the client rest easier?
The Client Care Academy
Attorney Bonazzoli would argue that the answer is an emphatic "yes." He feels so strongly about the benefits of his approach that he has created the Client Care Academy to teach other attorneys this new approach to estate planning.