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Collaboration and Mediation – two skills clients need to demand from Estate Planners

“My kid is going to be a lawyer. He’s really good at arguing ‘til the cows come home!” And unfortunately in a world of increased divisiveness, the biggest bullies and most aggressive lawyers gain fame and fortune. But in the arena of Estate Planning, there is a movement toward collaboration between advisors who understand the law, Insurance, taxes, Financial planning (LIFT) and want to work collaboratively to build long-term meaningful relationships. There is also a shift toward working with younger advisors who are able to collaborate and mediate conflict between family members, business associates and advisors. If the estate planning lawyer is part of the old ‘father knows best’ guard who charges by the 6 minute increment to produce paper, clients need to ask if they are better served with one mind in the short term or several expert who will work together for the best long term plan?

Collaboration between advisors in joint client engagements leverages the knowledge base and technical expertise of each professional advisor. Since this common sense premise is so obvious, why isn’t there a higher level of collaboration between attorneys, accountants, wealth managers and insurance professionals working together to meet client goals and objectives?

A tangible benefit of collaboration and improving communication between advisors is a greater understanding of the roles and responsibilities of each adviser when working on joint client matters. It can also ensure that all advisors understand the client’s goals and objectives and how each contributes in helping the client succeed. Professional advisors who value collaboration with other professionals put the client’s interests first at all times. It is about understanding what is in the best interest of the client and working together to understand and achieve the clients’ goals and objectives. It’s about developing and maintaining a long term relationship with the client. Each advisor owes a duty of loyalty to the

client above their own economic self-interest.

Collaboration, or the lack of it, may be influenced by underlying long-held attitudes and misperceptions. For instance, attorneys often view financial planners as ‘salespeople’ while attorney’s are often viewed as too controlling and unwilling to listen to other advisers in a meaningful way on joint client matters. Besides attitudes and misconceptions which inhibit collaboration between advisors in joint engagements, varying business practices or business interests also can play a role. Varying billing practices also can have a chilling effect on collaboration. “When this goes awry,” according to Jamie Bush, “it has occasionally been due to someone, generally an attorney or accountant, who bills the client for every off line conversation about any issue that comes up.

This doesn’t happen when advisors bill the client on a flat fee basis which includes the expectation or possibility of speaking to other advisors during the planning process. For example at the Foster Legal Advisory Group, we have often said, “I’m going to charge you $X,000 for this estate plan and will be speaking to your insurance agent and wealth manager from time to time until the plan is executed and those conversations will not be billed separately” versus the client getting a bill showing several “conversations with insurance agent” next to a charge for 20 minutes and $200.”

All clients should encourage your advisors to collaborate by meeting jointly with them to help clearly define roles and responsibilities at the beginning of a matter. It is also valuable to have a clear understanding as to how each is to be compensated for their involvement at the outset of the engagement. One important role to consider and make clear to all is: who is coordinating the work? As the client, you should pick the advisor who you have the best relationship with and insist that all are working together to advance your best interests.

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