Volume 19, Number 5
How to Manage an Estate Practice
By Daniel B. Evans
Flying an airplane has been described as "hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer panic." The same could be said of the practice of law, and an estate practice is no exception. You cruise along on autopilot, and you think you know what you're doing; but one night you find yourself sitting bolt upright in bed, in a cold sweat. You realize you missed a deadline or a tax election, or you spot the flaw in the document you drafted that could result in a large (and unnecessary) liability for your client.
Good practice management, and the systems that go into it, can make the hours of boredom more bearable and the moments of sheer panic fewer and farther apart. Using efficient forms, checklists, and other practice systems can achieve the following miracles:
- Save time by eliminating the need to reinvent the wheel for each client;
- Prevent errors and oversights that can result from doing things on an ad hoc basis again and again;
- Improve the quality of your work product by ensuring that every client gets the benefit of the latest forms and planning techniques; and
- Improve client relations by giving clients more information at little or no additional cost.
This article describes several types of forms and systems that estate and trust lawyers can incorporate to improve their practices. (Many of these techniques will work for other practices as well.)
A number of forms and procedures can facilitate dealing with new clients and improve the quality of information you give and receive.
- Brochures and fee agreements can help clients understand the nature of your practice, your qualifications and services, how your fees are determined, and when payments are expected. Information presented in this format helps build client confidence and may answer questions that clients are concerned about but are embarrassed to ask. Written fee agreements may be required in some jurisdictions but are simply a sound business practice.
- Questionnaires mailed (or accessible online) to new clients in advance of the initial meeting, or used to collect information during it, ensure that nothing important is overlooked. They also organize all important client information in the same way for quick and easy reference. Streamlining this process makes the estate planning process more efficient and reduces the time you spend in client meetings.
Questionnaires are helpful in estate administrations for similar reasons. Giving clients lists of specific information to collect about a decedent or the decedent's assets can reduce lawyer and paralegal time spent collecting that information and result in more profitable estate administration when billing is not hourly. (Even when billing is hourly, eliminating unnecessary time helps ensure the total fee remains reasonable under local law.)
- Projections and estimates are very important for both estate planning and administration, and software can be used to make projections quickly and accurately. Estate tax projections help clients understand how the lawyer can help and demonstrate the practical effects of the lawyer's recommendations. Some clients may not follow all of the laws, rates, and deductions, but most will understand numbers or graphs that illustrate how their estates will be distributed.
Many software programs on the market are specifically designed for these kinds of projections, and you should be able to find one suitable to your particular practice and style. Estate administration projections also are important because the fiduciaries and beneficiaries can use realistic expectations for the net distributions from the estate (after taxes) as soon as possible.
- Pamphlets and crib sheets (overviews) can be extremely helpful in giving clients background information on the laws and techniques the lawyer recommends. They are not a substitute for client meetings and directly answering clients' questions, but they can refresh the client's memory of the lawyer's explanations and suggest further points of clarification. Preprinted explanations also can expedite personal written communications, for example, explaining your recommendation for an irrevocable life insurance trust and allowing you to concentrate your letter on the tax savings or other benefits.
Topics for such overviews include the following: federal estate and gift tax system, federal estate tax unified credits, advantages and disadvantages of marital trusts, trusts and lifetime giving for children, life insurance, IRAs and qualified plan benefits, charitable remainder trusts, and estate administrations. Be sure to cover basic information in an easily digestible format. One of my most popular web pages is an extremely simple timetable for estate administrations in Pennsylvania explaining how executors must collect assets, pay debts and taxes, and distribute the remaining assets in accordance with the will and giving due dates for various taxes. This is basic information most people do not have and can use. You can check out a copy of it at http://evans-legal.com/dan/easched.html.
Client Meetings and Communications
Many theories and sources exist to explain how to conduct client interviews and effective letter writing for clients, but a few points are worth emphasizing. Whenever possible, prepare an agenda or checklist for the meeting. For an estate planning client, the checklist should cover necessary information like that detailed above and a list of the most relevant estate planning techniques or issues. For an estate administration client, list the decisions that must be made before the estate can be distributed, or other relevant matters.
When writing to a client about something that requires more than one page, break up the letter with subheadings if possible to make it easier to read and digest. A letter summarizing missing information or decisions that need to be made can be divided into these two subject sections.
Every meeting should end, and every letter should close, with a brief summary of what needs to be done next, by whom. Too often, clients sit waiting for recommendations from the lawyer while the lawyer sits waiting for information from the client. In your summation, make explicit what should happen next, rather than assuming the process is obvious to all. Mentioning this at the end of the letter will keep it memorable.
Planning the Plan
Although most lawyers have general ways of dealing with estates and estate planning clients, having a specific plan for each client and estate is important. Whenever possible, establish the plan in as much detail as possible during the first meeting.
For most estate planning clients, the planning procedure is fairly simple. Decisions are made during the first meeting, the lawyer drafts documents, the client reviews the documents, necessary corrections or changes are made, and the client signs the final documents. In some cases the plan is more complicated, usually because some issues can't be resolved right away or it is easier to break up the process into different phases. For example, certain proposed lifetime gifts may require additional decisions or be simpler to make at a future date. Even deferred decisions or actions, however, should be included on a timetable for the client's overall estate planning.
Estate administrations are most effective when a complete plan and timetable for administration and distribution of the estate are established as soon as possible. The most time-consuming, expensive, and also unprofitable estate administrations are those that drift from deadline to deadline without a clear plan for how and when to distribute the estate. Instead, immediate estimates of debts and taxes should be readied, as well as plans for selling assets to meet these obligations and for how and when to distribute the remaining assets-taking into account the possible income tax consequences of the distributions. In this respect, even a tentative plan is better than none; a tentative plan can be changed, but the absence of any plan will probably lead to the absence of anticipatory thinking-and trouble.
Drafting wills, trusts, powers of attorney, and other estate planning documents is another area where systems or checklists can ensure the right provisions are included, the wrong provisions are excluded, and lawyers do not spend unnecessary time recomposing standard clauses.
Several drafting systems on the market can draft documents suitable for most practices in most states. Not all can create testamentary charitable lead trusts, but all create simple wills, wills with trusts for minor children, and marital deductions and bypass trusts for estates that require marital deduction planning. Some of these systems may seem expensive, but they quickly pay for themselves simply by saving time.
Software tools such as HotDocs, which can automate a firm's own system of will and trust forms, also are available. Implementing the program may require some time and effort and a lawyer, paralegal, or consultant who is adept at using the software, but the resulting efficiency often is worth the effort.
Even a manual system is better than no system at all. A library of clauses that can be cut and pasted into a document, a master document that can be adapted to fit individual needs by adding or deleting clauses, or even just a notebook with sample clauses can significantly improve the speed and accuracy of will and trust drafting.
Most of the preceding discussions have been about the lawyer's interactions with the client and client services, but internal management issues for the lawyer and the lawyer's staff also can be expedited.
When a new client is accepted or a new file is opened, contact information is always needed for billing; conflicts checking; Rolodex or e-mail files; and general client mailings of newsletters, holiday cards, and so forth. A specific procedure that inputs such standard information at the beginning saves duplication and errors.
Keeping track of contacts, to-do lists, due dates for court proceedings or tax returns and other commitments, and calendars for appointments often is best handled by specialized case management software such as Amicus Attorney or Time Matters. Using such programs helps avoid missed deadlines, keeps client logs and information at the ready, accurately records billable time, and generally streamlines practice.
Law firms also should have well-established file closing procedures. Always review the physical file to ensure all original documents have been returned to the client. In addition, be sure the client has information for future tax returns or transactions, for example, date of death values of assets that passed through the estate and now have a new income tax basis. Just as important is archiving all client information that may be logged within different computers. E-mails, telephone notes, case notes, time records, word processing documents, incoming faxes, spreadsheets, tax returns, and fiduciary accounting data could be needed in the future. Just as paper files are retained for a period of time, electronic files also should be collected, archived, and saved in an electronic client folder until they can be safely deleted.
Effective planning and management and the implementation of forms and systems can cut down on the moments of panic and make the work in between more efficient and enjoyable for both the lawyer and the client.
Daniel B. Evans is a lawyer in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.