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Estate Planning for Beginners

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I recently had the chance to sit down with three top estate planners for a question-and-answer session. Here’s their advice for producers new to the estate planning business and those who wish to work on estate planning teams. (To read the first half of this Producer Roundtable, see Today’s Opportunities in Estate Planning.)

Q. What steps do you recommend to the producer who is considering focusing on estate planning? Are there professional designations that make a real difference, and are there associations you would recommend?

Kirk Wilkerson, registered representative and investment advisor who offer securities, annuities and insurance products through AXA Advisors LLC:  The topic of estate planning scares many people. Clients want to know you know what you are doing. By attaining designations, such as the CFP or CLU, you’ll let clients and professionals know you have dedicated yourself to ongoing education about these and other financial issues. Also, affiliating with associations, such as the MDRT, is of tremendous importance. Not only do such associations raise your credibility, they give you exposure to other experienced professionals who are usually willing to help you grow your career and enhance your knowledge.

Philip E. Harriman, CLU, RFC, ChFC, co-founder of Lebel and Harriman LLP in Falmouth, Maine:  Absolutely, designations are a must. The ChFC and the CLU come to mind as the respected and well-regarded ones. Designations indicate that you have intellectual as well as marketing expertise, which many attorneys and CPAs would expect if you are to work as a team of colleagues. I would join a local estate planning association as well as the Association of Advanced Life Underwriting (AALU).

Brian D. Heckert, CLU, ChFC, president of Financial Solutions Midwest LLC: In certain regions of the United States, advisors specialize in estate planning. For those just starting, I recommend teaming up with an experienced advisor and splitting cases for a few years. Entering into a mentoring relationship has proven to increase knowledge and often the revenue of the junior advisor. Most importantly, it benefits the client. The revenue split is a small down payment on the lifetime of knowledge gained.

I recommend all advisors pursue their ChFC and CFP designations. Also, attend MDRT focus sessions to keep on top of the continuous changes to the tax law and how our industry can help solve these issues.

Q. Many producers in the estate planning area talk about the importance of working with other members of the client’s team, such as their attorney, accountant, etc. Can you talk a little bit about how that works from a practical viewpoint? In other words, is it necessary for you to take the lead role, and if so, how do you accomplish that? How do you earn the trust of all those other advisors as well as your client?

Heckert: I almost always take the lead role among advisors. I like to use the following example: if the best quarterback in the league is playing in the defensive back position, it will do no good for the team. It is like having the best accountant or attorney involved in the planning process, yet doing the wrong job. These professionals should draft the documents and check the tax law, but they should not coordinate the process. They often lack the initiative, or the client does not want to pay the fee for a job my staff and I are highly capable of handling. If I can help advisors look good at a reasonable fee by doing the legwork for them then we all look good.

See also: Creating an Estate Planning Dream Team

Wilkerson: We live in a small town, so we know most of the attorneys and accountants locally. This helps as far as having a degree of credibility. We tend to take the lead in starting the conversations with clients about estate planning. Many attorneys and accountants will defer to financial professionals, like us, to discuss life insurance and annuities. That’s where we are able to fill a role and help make the connections. We recently added a new producer to our office who has been an estate planning attorney for the past 15 years and helps support estate planning for our clients. We believe positioning our practice with differences will equip us to better serve our clients and other professionals.

Harriman: I’m a firm believer in the team approach. Each member of the team has expertise — legal, tax, etc. — that, when woven together, serves the client best. When each member of the team and the client does his or her job, everyone feels the satisfaction of a job well done and a client who internalizes a sense of pride knowing that they have prepared for an uncertain future. Over the years, I’ve been honored to meet with surviving family and business colleagues to explain how the future without the patriarch or matriarch will continue the dreams and lifestyles they came to expect. The team approach has clearly made the difference in each case.

Hirsch: Any further thoughts?

Heckert: I encourage advisors to stay on top of their game by getting involved in associations, such as the MDRT, and also by continually learning through mentoring junior agents, by teaming with senior agents when they have clients who need more than they can provide, and by regarding life insurance as a product with many benefits. If advisors keep this in mind, tax law changes or regulations will have a minimal impact on their careers and they can focus on helping their clients.

For more on estate planning, see:

Do Estate Planning Attorneys Make Good Strategic Alliance Partners?

KIS-ing Estate Planning

Tom Rowan Breaks Down the Mystique of Estate Planning