Each year, at the annual Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning (known simply as "Heckerling"), InterActive Legal hosts a luncheon for our subscribers, prospective subscribers, and Advisors. The luncheon is our way of thanking those who support us (in addition to providing some sustenance in the middle of a marathon week), and each year we provide a program that we hope our attendees will find interesting and enlightening. This year, our program featured InterActive Legal Advisor and respected Florida estate planning attorney Alan Gassman, as well as guest speaker, Dr. Srikumar Rao. Dr. Rao is a celebrated author, speaker, and coach, helping professionals better manage and improve their lives and work, and the balance between the two1.
In the weeks since Heckerling, I have reflected on Dr. Rao's comments during our program, and in the materials I read and watched in preparation for the luncheon. Like any expert teacher, Dr. Rao weaves together several conceptual threads to illustrate his overall lesson, which is intended to guide his audience on the path to a more fulfilling life and career. To loosely paraphrase Dr. Rao, one of those threads is the notion that we, as part of our human nature, focus too intently on the results of our actions, eager to evaluate those results and categorize them as good or bad. Rather than focus on those results, Dr. Rao teaches, we should instead set a goal and then focus on the process we take to achieve that goal. By doing so, we are more present in our daily lives, and able to benefit from the process itself, regardless of whether the result is as we expected. Ironically, by focusing on the process, we often are more likely to achieve the desired result.
I know that many of you reading this will think of it simply as new-age babble, not applicable or helpful to you in your busy workday and life. I know it because I also felt that way at first. We are in a results-driven business; estate planning is just that – planning in order to bring about a certain result. Our clients come to us seeking that result, and we have a duty to do our best to achieve it, if possible. Accordingly, teachings like Dr. Rao's seem, at first glance, not only unhelpful, but anathema to what we are trying to do in our profession. However, being the diligent student, I tried to apply the concept in my work and my life, and I now see the benefit in it. By being cognizant of what we are doing each step of the way toward our goals, we are better able to learn from each experience. We are able to be more flexible and adjust our behavior along the way, which may very well lead to better results in the end. More importantly, even if the result is not what we expected, learning from and appreciating the experience allows us to understand that we have accomplished something through the process, even if not what was intended.
Over the last several weeks, as I thought about this concept, it occurred to me that perhaps we need to adopt this approach in estate planning as well. Naturally, as estate planners, we always have to have our clients' goals in mind, and do our part to work toward them. However, as the recent enactment of the SECURE Act has shown, the law is a profession in which the best laid plans often crumble in the face of unexpected change. Estate planners are now faced with the somewhat daunting task of contacting clients to tell them their documents may not work as intended, and should be reviewed ASAP. Without a doubt, some of those clients will not be happy, and will be annoyed (to say the least) at the prospect of enduring the burden and the fees associated with revising their documents.
However, I am not the first to point out that this presents an opportunity to connect with clients, to inform and educate them about the change in the law. That in itself is a valuable service (as a side note, InterActive Legal subscribers have access to a sample client letter in the Resource library of the InterActive LegalSuite platform). More to the point, though, how many of those clients, when they call or come in to discuss the changes necessitated by the SECURE Act, will mention in conversation the adoption of a grandchild, their concern over the impending divorce of their son, or the new business arrangement they are entering? To the client, these are the incidents of their life, not events that require a call to their estate planning attorney. However, as we all know, these are significant changes that often need to be addressed in the estate plan. By connecting with the client over a change in the law, the attorney now has an opportunity to provide incredibly valuable counsel to the client regarding issues that at the core of their family, their life, and their plan.
The provisions in many documents relating to retirement benefits now need to be changed because they will not produce the intended result as drafted. That fact, understandably, has many estate planners worried about unhappy clients, damage to their reputation or, in the worst-case scenario, a malpractice suit. However, the process of engaging with the client to make those changes may lead to discussions in which the attorney can provide advice that adds much more value than the potential damage to the plan caused by the SECURE Act.
In that way, Dr. Rao's comments during this year's Heckerling luncheon reminded me of the "legacy planning" approach espoused by one of the featured speakers at last year's luncheon, Daniel Scott. Legacy planning recognizes that estate planning is a process, requiring continuous engagement and change throughout the attorney's relationship with the client. In fact, it often benefits from including the client's other advisors, from financial planners to fitness trainers, in an ongoing discussion that gets to the bottom of what matters most to the client. At the end of the day, isn't that more important than the result of an extra five-year stretch in IRA distributions?
1For additional information about Dr. Rao and his work, including his Creativity and Personal Mastery programs, visit https://theraoinstitute.com/.