For professionals in the estate planning arena, one of the greatest long-term threats may be commoditization. If clients come to believe that many details of estate planning have become so simple that don't justify the costs and complexities long understood, it could transform who provides estate planning advice, how it is provided and which advisors will be able to thrive in the new planning environment that's emerging. What's behind this threat?
AFFECTS OF PORTABILITY
Recent tax law changes make it almost inevitable that more estates than ever will file federal estate-tax returns to secure the benefit of portability (through which the surviving spouse can capture and use the estate-tax exemption of the spouse who dies first). This benefit is secured simply by filing a complete estate- tax return; the IRS permits simplifying assumptions when filing. Many clients believe there is little chance of an IRS audit, and no tax is likely to be due even if there is an audit.
As a result, clients are increasingly likely to view the preparation and filing of these returns as a commodity for which the lowest-cost provider can be hired.
Similarly, the talents of wealth managers might be viewed by most consumers as rather interchangeable. Even if you can demonstrate with some sophistication that your mousetrap is better, will most consumers really distinguish a substantial benefit from one relative to the other?
In addition, will consumers begin to view wealth management as a commodity? What will then distinguish one advisor from another?
For more than a decade, estate planning attorneys have thrived on selling bypass trusts, QTIP marital trusts and insurance trusts to a wide swath of clients as staples of planning. But with a mere 3,000 to 4,000 estates a year paying estate taxes, will one lawyer's approach be viewed as significantly more beneficial than the next? Not all bypass trusts are created equally, of course - but will clients really discern or, more importantly, pay for the difference?
Estate planning attorneys will not be put out of business - the clients who sought estate planning guidance in the past are unlikely to opt for impersonal and generic online services - but business may not be the same. Even for wealthier clients, LegalZoom and others have changed the perception of legal documents.
Even some of the most astute and sophisticated clients may have an image of someone pushing a button to generate their documents. This will create greater pressure on fees and demands for greater efficiency.
In this new environment, what will distinguish the successful advisor from the struggling one will be service. The caliber of client traditionally served by attorneys, accountants and wealth managers is not likely to opt for a canned will, but neither will these clients tolerate inefficiencies and significant costs. When estate taxes were 50%, those costs may have seemed justified.
But now -with taxes at zero in many states for a variety of estates - they will not. While planning to minimize income taxes that heirs will face could still be quite important, it is unclear how much clients will value these potential savings.
Taxes are only one of a number of potent forces transforming the estate planning arena. Among the others:
* Demographics: 5 million American baby boomers are retiring each year. Just as this cohort has transformed other aspects of society, it will transform estate planning. Earlier clients may have been focused on transferring intact the wealth they created over a lifetime, but boomer clients may well be more focused on assuring adequate cash flow for more years after retirement. And they should - boomers are likely to live longer than their parents.
* Priorities: The idealistic currents that influenced the Age of Aquarius may well resurface in the form of more attention to charitable giving - and perhaps even "charitable doing." For many, donating time will be as important as donating money. Charitable gift annuities, charitable remainder trusts and charitable bequests may all be motivated as much by a sense of morality as by a desire to minimize estate tax.
* Technology: New tools are transforming the way that advisors can interact with clients. Some have even predicted the demise of the traditional office conference room now that meetings can be held through services like Skype. This is unlikely for estate planning, which is simply too personal and too important to be handled in such an impersonal manner. Yet technology has transformed estate planning in other ways. Clients can handle routine matters more efficiently. The review of a document drafted after an in-person meeting can be handled through a web conference, for example.
* Expectations: Clients will increasingly demand efficiencies in terms of reduced cost and better coordination. Document-drafting technology, web-based research, scanning and document management all can provide efficiencies.
All of these factors argue for the need for greater coordination among members of the advisory team: wealth manager, trust officer, attorney, CPA, care manager and others. Attorneys should not be crafting plans or drafting estate planning documents without first coordinating the planning with the wealth manager who has created a financial plan and projection. Without understanding the client's burn rate, investment plan or projections of future wealth, creating an estate plan is dicey at best.
When most clients perceived that an advisor would save half of their estate from federal estate tax, they might have tolerated the inefficiency of an uncoordinated plan. No longer. With the new emphasis on income tax planning, coordination of all advisors is critical.
Optimally harvesting gains and losses, for instance, requires communication between the client's accountant and wealth manager. But it also requires consideration of other issues: the distribution provisions included in various client trusts; whether existing trusts that are grantor trusts should remain grantor trusts or be transformed into complex trusts; whether assets should be swapped from irrevocable grantor trusts back into the client's estate, and much more.
Well-orchestrated service, provided by a coordinated and communicative advisory team, will be the hallmark of the most successful advisors.
Achieving this will require a concerted effort; all advisors must focus more on the team than on their individual role or on maintaining team leadership. Too often each advisor wants to quarterback the team. Success will take a bit of a Zen-like quality - by letting go of controlling the team, each advisor will be in a better position to render a higher level of coordinated and efficient service.
The future is not bleak, but rather challenging. It's likely to be rewarding, too - but we all have to adapt to get there.
Martin M. Shenkman, CPA, PFS, JD, is a Financial Planning contributing writer and an estate planner in Paramus, N.J. He runs laweasy.com, a free legal website.
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