Estate and financial planning are complicated. Your goals probably aren’t. So why does everything about planning seem so complicated?
Achieving your goals may require you to deal with some complications. However, things are likely to seem more complicated if your actual goals are never articulated or do not receive the attention they deserve or require in the planning process.
Let’s take the example of estate tax planning in an estate plan. Estate planning lawyers for decades have walked clients through credit shelter planning trusts, qualified disclaimers, estate tax payments and of late, portability elections. And the reason why is straight-forward — estate planning lawyers assume (almost always correctly) that clients want to minimize estate taxes. But as we have discussed, minimizing estate taxes is a secondary goal. And when a discussion centers around a secondary goal, particularly one that is related to a fairly technical topic, it’s easy to feel like you’re deep in the weeds.
Just recently I was meeting with a couple where one of the spouses was recently diagnosed with a serious, degenerative medical condition. Yes, there were tax considerations to deal with. Yes, we had to discuss how the estate plan might impact the children. But ultimately, both spouses were most concerned about making sure that appropriate care would be provided and that the healthy spouse would have financial resources for retirement, etc. Once those issues surfaced, our conversations changed significantly. Our time together became more emotional, but the discussion also became somewhat simpler — because we knew what was primary and what wasn’t. We could talk about what I could do to help, what their financial advisor could do to help, and what other family could do to help solve the primary concerns. The nuances associated with secondary goals were left for another time or were dispatched with much more quickly.
So here’s a few things that might help you identify your primary goals so that you might communicate them clearly to your advisors:
- Identify what keeps you up at night regarding your spouse, family or finances. Write it down and transpose those into goals. For instance, in my example above, a primary fear was that the unhealthy spouse’s care needs would consume their finances and leave the healthy spouse unable to maintain their lifestyle. The transposition into a goal would be “I want my spouse to have a comfortable retirement despite my illness.”
- Identify what your individual heirs’ needs and challenges might be today, 10 – 20 years from now, 20 -30 years from now and so on. Many of the later needs and challenges will be the same, so basically it is an exercise to identify needs and challenges of individual beneficiaries over the course of a lifetime. Again, transpose meeting those needs or challenges into goals.
- Consider what portion of your assets you consider important to keep, and what you consider to be excess, if any. Be introspective and evaluate whether the amount you feel you need to keep is beyond what you truly need given your wealth. If it is, does that suggest that there are other fears and challenges associated with your own personal financial security or otherwise that are hidden from view?
These are just a few techniques. If you have others, please let me know. Once completed, though, I suggest bringing your list of goals, in written form, with you when you meet with your advisor. Let them know that these are the primary things you want to focus on. Then, during the course of your meeting, try to identify whether additional, secondary goals are overwhelming the primary goals and steer the conversation back to the primary ones.