June 29, 2017

Your First Meeting with an Estate Planning Client

David H. Lefton

Most people don’t give much thought to the certainty of death or the possibility of disability. Consequently, it’s not surprising that a recent survey by Everplans (tinyurl.com/h432a6j) concluded that only 34 percent of Americans have created wills. This is not a surprising result, as numerous previous surveys have reached similar conclusions.

What’s important for us about this percentage is what it means to the estate planning practitioner. There are many aspects that come into play with initial estate planning consultations, including the fact that the great majority of people do not want to think about their own deaths and what will happen to their families and property afterward. According to the Everplans study, it is also very likely people don’t know how to get started with their estate plan and, consequently, they simply fail to plan.

Therefore, it is important for the estate planning practitioner to understand, starting with the potential client’s initial call to the office, that the potential client has likely procrastinated for some length of time before contacting you, is probably not excited to meet with you to address issues pertaining to his or her death, is somewhat frightened to talk about the subject, and doesn’t know how to get started. Approaching the initial consultation with an appreciation for the potential client’s aversion to estate planning will help you set the tone for a successful estate planning consultation and, perhaps more importantly to you, a new client.

Setting the Tone

The estate planning process starts with the initial call to the office. To start, you should have a predictable process in place to handle each call. Regardless of who answers your phone, the call should be answered in a warm, professional manner. A call handled in this fashion will set the tone to the caller up front that you value the opportunity to be of service regarding estate planning and that you are prepared to deal respectfully with the caller’s discomfort in discussing such a frightening topic as his or her death.

When scheduling the appointment, confirm the caller’s name and contact information and make sure you run a conflict check before the first appointment. At the conclusion of the initial call, callers should be advised what they need to bring to the meeting, what they can expect at the initial consultation, and how long the appointment will take. Then mail or e-mail questionnaires to the caller to complete for the initial consultation, as this helps the caller organize the information you need the caller to bring and have available at the initial consultation. See the sidebar on page 14 for a Sample Initial Consultation Reminder letter to clients that explains these questionnaires and outlines how potential clients should prepare for the initial meeting. Sample questionnaires used by my law firm have been posted online: Personal Information Inventory (tinyurl.com/htx6k4h); Personal Information Inventory Part II: Spouse Information (tinyurl.com/zwj3qut); Personal Asset and Liability Inventory (tinyurl.com/zpwr986); and Questionnaire for Health Care Power of Attorney, Living Will and/or Donor Registry Enrollment (tinyurl.com/zquz7ag). Note that both the letter and questionnaires further elaborate on the importance of providing the information requested. (One caution: Don’t make your questionnaires so complex and lengthy as to frighten off the prospect. A good client of ours once rejected a fine law firm because its estate planning questionnaire was almost 75 pages long, and he simply didn’t want to spend hours and hours completing it.)

While I do not proclaim this is the one and only initial contact process, I am happy to share that in my 25-plus years of practicing law, it has worked well for me. I rarely have any no-shows for the initial consultation and rarely have a caller show up for an initial consultation without the questionnaires at least substantially completed. I have also learned that if a potential caller schedules an appointment, does the work to prepare for the meeting by completing the questionnaires, and takes the time to come to the meeting, I am almost always retained to prepare the plan. Thus, the manner in which the initial call is handled can set the tone for a successful initial consultation.

The Initial Consultation

From the attorney’s perspective, perhaps the most critical goal of the initial consultation is to be retained during the appointment. After all, paying clients support you and your practice. However, as you walk into the initial consultation, the last thing that should be on your mind is whether or not you are going to be retained by your prospect. The focus instead should be on putting your new “friend” at ease while obtaining the information you need to prepare a plan suitable for the client. This is an approach that requires the practitioner to make learning about the client’s wishes and goals the key objective of the initial consultation.

In order to control the initial consultation and ensure a positive outcome, you should have an agenda so that the meeting has structure to it. Estate planning initial consultations can be broken down into four stages: introductions, client education, fact and information gathering, and being retained.

Introductions. Remember, unless clients have previously worked with you on another matter or are acquaintances, they are likely nervous to meet with you to plan for their death. The first few minutes of the meeting should be focused on putting the clients at ease. Take a few minutes to get to know your clients and make them comfortable. Offer the client a beverage, share a joke, discuss a matter in the news, or engage in other “small talk.” When you feel the client is more relaxed, then proceed to the next step.

Client education. Begin with a general description of what estate planning entails. I typically explain that my goal is to help clients prepare not only for what happens after death, but also to be ready for surprises that might appear during life—surprises that can be met by a proper health care power of attorney, general power of attorney, designation of guardian, etc. This is a good entry point to learn something about the prospective client’s family dynamic.

I also give a broad explanation of what a trust is, along with some of the reasons one might want a trust, and explain that, generally speaking, there are two types of plans available to a client—a “will plan” and a “trust plan”—and that each plan also includes appropriate advance directives. Whatever plan you recommend, you should make sure your client understands the basic purpose of each document and why each is necessary. Approach this discussion with caution. Most people could care less about tax codes and court rulings. Most people don’t want to know how the “product” is made, but simply want to know that the documents you are recommending will help them avoid risk and achieve their goals.

Fact and information gathering. The initial consultation is an opportunity for the practitioner to learn about the clients, their loved ones, and their hopes, fears, dreams, and aspirations for themselves and their family. It is during this conversation that you will learn how the client wants to be cared for during life, to care for/protect their surviving spouse, to care for/protect their adult and minor children, to pass on values and ideals to their children/grandchildren, and to maintain control over their property, along with any special considerations unique to the client. In order to discover what is truly important to the client, you must come into the meeting prepared with a solid list of questions and ready to listen to the client. At this stage, the clients should be doing the majority of the talking because they are sharing their concerns and goals with you.

In addition to learning about the clients’ goals and objectives, the fact and information gathering also entails learning about the assets the client owns, their value, and whether there are any special or unique assets that require special considerations, such as a family heirloom or pet.

Being retained. After explaining the nature of the documents you have recommended to the client, you then can advise the client that in order to proceed you will need to be engaged to prepare the plan. All clients will want to know the cost of the plan you recommend. Whether you use a flat fee or bill by the hour, the best practice is to enter a written agreement of representation outlining the documents you will be preparing and when payments are due.

Remember, your goal from the first call is to gain a new client. So relax, be prepared by having a plan and process in place, and listen well. More often than not, you should be rewarded with a new and satisfied paying client. The most important thing you can add is to make potential clients comfortable talking about illness, incapacity, and death, and to stress the importance to their entire family of making plans that will protect them.


Sample Initial Consultation Reminder

Dear _____:

First, thanks again for setting an Initial Consultation with respect to your estate planning. _____________ is looking forward to meeting you. Our law firm is committed to its clients and helps clients carefully plan to prevent problems with incapacity, probate, and estate taxes. We are confident that we can help you address your estate planning concerns.

Your Appointment

You have scheduled an appointment on ______ __, 201_ at __:__ _.m. If you have any problem keeping your scheduled appointment, please call me at least 24 hours in advance to reschedule. We have free parking behind our building. Feel free to park there and enter through the back door. If the lot is full, feel free to park in the lot to the right of the exit to our parking lot as we have reserved parking for clients at that location.

Questionnaires

We ask all first-time clients to complete a number of questionnaires. The questionnaires attached are: two Personal Information Inventories; one Personal Asset and Liability Inventory; and two Questionnaires for Health Care Power of Attorney and Living Will. Please print the attachments, complete them as best you can, and bring them with you to the appointment.

We understand you may be reluctant to give this information, so please be assured that any information we receive is protected under the attorney-client privilege, and we will never discuss this information without your permission.

We also understand you may not have all the answers to the questions asked in the questionnaires. In that case, just fill in the information as best you can.

Finally, we recognize the questionnaires may take you quite a bit of time to complete. Please know that the questionnaires do help us discuss with you and address your legal needs. Accordingly, please bring the completed questionnaires to your appointment.

Documents

Please also bring copies of the following documents if you have them.

  • wills
  • trusts
  • living wills
  • powers of attorney
  • long-term care insurance
  • deeds to real estate
  • copy of real estate tax bill
  • most recent bank and brokerage account statements
  • life insurance/IRA/retirement plan beneficiary designations

The Initial Consultation

At your Initial Consultation, _________ will review all the information and documents you provide to us. _________ will discuss your concerns, goals, and objectives and will give you information about probate, estate planning, and capacity planning. _________ will discuss the various options available to you, including wills, trusts, powers of attorney, health care powers of attorney, and living wills. Depending on your circumstances, we may also discuss other relevant matters.

Your appointment should last less than one hour. At the end of the appointment, you will decide whether to hire ______ to provide any further legal services to you. If you have any questions prior to your appointment, please do not hesitate to contact us.

David H. Lefton

David H. Lefton, Esquire, is 2016–2017 Chair of the GPSolo Division. He is an equity partner with Barron Peck Bennie & Schlemmer in Cincinnati, Ohio.