Death. No one likes to confront it, but Wynne Whitman is in the business of serving clients who must face it, and is now trying to educate the general public that they, too, will benefit from estate and other financial planning for their eventual deaths–and the death of family members.
Whitman, a 42-year-old tax lawyer and partner in the estates department at the 80-person firm of Schenck, Price, Smith and King in Morristown, New Jersey, recently co-wrote with an oncologist Wants, Wishes and Wills, an easy-to-read consumer’s guide to protecting assets for heirs and others both while still healthy and also when facing death.
Unfortunately, many people wait until the end, and time that should be spent visiting and saying goodbye is instead consumed with family members scurrying around to find financial documents and getting affairs in order, Whitman says. “I spend a lot of time going to hospitals and critical care units because people have waited” too long, she says.
Whitman, who has been an attorney for 13 years, also tries to draw out any potential problems when she talks with families. For instance, occasionally she will ask certain family members to write a letter to her, as they will be more forthcoming about a gambling or drug problems among a family member or any infighting among siblings. Then she will be asked to structure the proceeds accordingly by, for instance, setting up a trust that can’t be tapped into until such behavior changes.
A key to helping people face their own demise is talking about tax issues, she says. If they do nothing, the tax payout could be a lot heftier than if trusts are created, for example. She can help structure the proceeds of life insurance so the proceeds are not included in the estate, for example. She points out that “70% of families lose their money in three generations,” and the worst thing the head of a family can do to repeat loss in further generations is to do nothing. Also, if a client fails to create an estate plan, the money can go to the people you least expect it to, depending on what state you live in, she says. For instance, in Kentucky, the spouse is fifth in line for inheritance if the estate is left without a will.