Reflections on the “Estate Planning” Industry

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Last month I attended the Heckerling Institute — considered by many to be the premiere conference focused on estate planning in the United States. It’s a very well-attended conference due to the breadth and depth of the seminars and materials presented. Consequently, it’s also well attended by financial institutions, accounting firms, and other parallel industries. In some ways, it’s a unique opportunity to see the world of financial services to the affluent all together, in one place, for a week.

One of the things that fascinated me was the disparate motivations on display. I’ve seen this before, but to see it in a concentrated form was remarkable. Let me summarize the strains of motivations that seemed present to me:

The Academics
There is no question in my mind that there is a not insignificant percentage of estate planning attorneys who are in the field primarily because of the intellectual challenge.  And the more significant the situation, the more likely there are tax complexities and other nuances that “feed their soul” and cause them to come into the office the next day.  However, a pure Academic in financial services becomes frustrated by those who do not share their love of the technical challenges and are often discouraged by the results of their labor.  As one nationally-known speaker (one who just about every estate planning attorney is aware of) said to me in the halls, he or she got into the speaking business more primarily because he or she “found it distasteful to help rich people funnel more money down to their spoiled kids and grandkids.”

The Hard Chargers
Although not as many of this crew got to the stage to present as the Academics, there clearly are those who are in it to be “The Guy” or “The Gal” to push things to the limit or come up with “the best” idea for tax avoidance or wealth creation.  They’re often product-oriented (whether a technique, a financial instrument, etc.) in their conversations and aggressive in their planning.  They’re marketers through and through, with their primary motivation, at the end of the day, their own success.

The Counselors
The last broad category are those motivated by the personal results more than the intellectual challenge of coordinating a tax strategy or the “big win” that implementing a transaction might produce.  They may have a distaste for facilitating the spoilage of wealthy kids and grandkids with the same fervor as the Academics, but believe that there is a way to be of help and reduce or eliminate spoilage in particular circumstances.  Perhaps there’s a certain naiveté that fuels them, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.

Certainly, many advisors have a blend of one or more of the above in them — but I believe it is instructive for clients to understand the motivations of their advisors because it impacts the services received and the results obtained.  Moreover, when working together, advisors should understand their own motivations and whether their colleagues in different disciplines are similarly motivated or not.

Personally, I would categorize myself as a Counselor with Academic tendencies.  I would also categorize myself as resistant to, and suspicious of, the Hard Charger.  Frankly, I probably stilted my description of that category too much based on my own predispositions, etc.  That said, depending on the goals desired, a combination of two or three of the categories of advisors may lead to the best results.

Clearly I’m painting with a broad brush here — but I’m interested to know: does the above resonate with you?  Do you see other primary categories that aren’t reflected above?  Is it helpful to have these categories in mind when evaluating your advisory team or when you’re part of such a team?

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Mark initiated this blog due to his passion in assisting and equipping families to manage their wealth and their families well.

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