Among the most important skills of an estate or financial planner is the ability to know the client, to understand who the client is, where that client stands in relation to the objectives (stated or unstated, realized or subconscious) he/she may have, and what things have to be done to move the client closer to the realization of these goals. Knowledge of (i) the client, (ii) the client’s fears, hopes, and dreams, (iii) the objects of the client’s bounty and their attendant fears, hopes and dreams (often not the same as the client’s), (iv) the client’s property, and (v) the relation of each to the others is essential to the estate or financial planner.
See also: 10 common estate planning mistakes
Even the most opposed skeptics cannot deny that there are some parallels between what estate planners do in the initial client interview and follow-up counseling and what those in the other helping professions do. Many clients and patients have difficulty coming to grips with the issues involved in each scenario. Like mental and physical assessments, estate planning assessments and recommendations must be based upon accurate and complete information. Like psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, we must simultaneously obtain accurate information from new clients while convincing them that we possess the requisite levels of trust, empathy and expertise to be given the very information we require in order to do our jobs correctly. Both estate planners and helpers share the challenge of having to overcome barriers — some deliberate and some subconscious — constructed by the client, third parties and estate/financial planning advisors, and sometimes all of the above.
The processes of engagement, data gathering, understanding, and assessment are actually parallel processes.
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That we as estate planners have to do all of this at once, most of us without the benefit of formal training or education in these matters, may give us (and many of our clients) great anxiety. In fact, all aspects of estate planning are impacted by human processes. Therefore, why isn’t there more focus on, study of, or formal education about, estate planning as a human process? In our opinion, it is due to a lack of focused and continuous research, efforts hampered and circumvented by our ethical responsibilities in the area of confidentiality.
Why is the initial interview so critical in estate planning?
There is wide agreement amongst estate planners that obtaining accurate, complete information is critical to fashioning a proper estate plan and keeping the estate planner shielded from malpractice. Though estate planners do not focus much attention on the formal knowledge of interviewing skills; other service-oriented professions see it a bit differently.
In a survey of practicing and teaching clinicians, comprehensive interviewing was ranked the highest of 32 skills by mental health practitioners.
Based upon the dearth of literature on the subject of interviewing and human processes as applied to estate planning, it is arguable that estate planners do not classify interviewing skills as very important. We believe, however, that the skill of client interviewing is just as important in estate planning as it is in the other helping professions.
Is there really more to the initial estate planning client interview than having some basic social skills and a good fact-finder? Can estate planning interview skills be identified, taught and learned? Consider the following quote and accompanying commentary.
If interviewing only involved getting patients to answer questions, clinicians could assign the task to a computer and spend their time doing other things. But a good interviewer must know how to work with a range of different personalities and problems: to give free rein to the informative patient, to guide the rambling patient, to encourage the silent one and to mollify the hostile one. Nearly anyone can learn these skills.
The good news indeed is that, like technical estate planning knowledge, nearly every estate planner can learn and continuously improve their interviewing skills. If psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers can organize, study, teach and learn interviewing skills tailored to their respective helping professions, then estate planners can as well. Estate planners must focus on the interview aspects of the estate planning process as well as the estate planning process itself. To do this, estate planners must examine the client interview from standpoints of the interviewer and interviewee.
Most of the efforts of estate planners in obtaining information tend to be focused solely on the cognitive aspects of “getting the facts” correct via a fact-finder. In fact, some fastidious estate planners constantly update their fact-finders in an attempt to keep up with the evolution of all possibly relevant information. In practice, rarely seen is a fact-finder that strays very far from the sub-specialty of the particular estate planner who utilizes that form. Unfortunately, the information that must be obtained in an estate planning interview includes information which is both verbal and nonverbal, fact and feeling. Too often, some of the most critical information that a client (or someone else) sends to an estate planner eludes the estate planner’s focus on the cold hard facts.
Have you ever had initial client interviews start out well, and then something was said or done (or communicated through body language), that impacted the interview and ultimately the relationship? In the worst case, a client who has a negative experience in an initial estate planning interview may postpone doing the estate planning that he or she needs to do, with potentially severe negative implications on his or her family. The estate planner may lose the client as well. How the initial interview goes can inform or shape the remainder of the client/estate planner relationship.
We would like to share some open-ended questions that you may want to use when interviewing clients. These questions are organized into categories for ease of reference. You do not have to use every question, or every category of questions.
1. Where do you fit in your family-of-origin’s birth order?
2. How did you obtain your wealth?
3. Have you ever been divorced? How many life partners have you had?
4. What does the word “wealthy” mean to you? Do you consider yourself wealthy?
5. Do you expect to receive a substantial gift, inheritance or other wealth from another source, and, if so, when do you expect to receive it? How much do you expect it to be?
6. Who or what is the source of the values that are important to you, and who was instrumental in instilling those values in you?
7. Of your values, what are the three most important to you? Why are these three the most important?
8. Do you feel that your descendants share your principal values? Why or why not?
9. What is your most important unfulfilled lifetime goal, and why is that particular goal so important to you?
10. Describe your present general health condition.
11. Have you ever declared bankruptcy or been sued for an amount that, if you were liable for that amount, would have bankrupted you?
12. Have you ever been sued? If so, how many times have you been sued? Please describe the present status of those matters.
13. To what ages have your ascendants lived to natural death?
14. What is your greatest fear?
15. Do you have any fears about doing estate planning, and if so, what are those fears?
16. Have you ever envisioned your family immediately following your death? What would that picture look like?
17. Does thinking about or discussing your death make you uncomfortable? Have you ever discussed this subject with your partner or your family? Does it make your partner or family uncomfortable? Has that discomfort impacted your willingness to do estate planning or to make progress in your estate planning?
18. Have you ever been involved in a contested estate or trust? If so, please provide some details, including how it started and how it concluded or the present status of the matter.
Your parents and other ascendants (e.g., grandparents, etc.)
19. Are either (or both) of your parents still living? If either is living, has either one of them ever taken up a new life partner who is not your parent? If so, how do you feel about that?
20. Have your parents or other ascendants ever discussed the extent of their wealth or their business with you or in front of you? How did you feel about that?
21. Are (were) you close with your parent(s)? If not, what happened to create the distance between you?
22. Did your grandparents or any other ascendant ever “skip a generation” in a bequest? If so, how did you feel about that?
Your spouse or life partner
23. If you have a life partner, please describe the present status of your relationship, including how long it has lasted.
24. How many life partners or spouses have you had in your life? How long did each relationship last and how did each end?
25. Did your parents approve of your choice of life partner? How did that make you feel?
26. Have you ever been physically, psychologically or legally separated from your life partner? If so, how long did the separation last, and what caused the separation to end?
27. If you have children from a prior relationship, how do your children and your present life partner get along? How do you expect them to get along after your death?
28. How would you feel about your life partner having a new relationship after your death?
29. Describe your level of comfort in your life partner’s ability to manage either physically or financially after your death?
30. Is there a clear delineation between the separate property of each partner, or has that distinction blurred over time? Do you think that there could be a dispute about who owns what if you two separated or if you die first?
31. How open are you about your life and your finances with your life partner? Is there anything significant about either category that your life partner does not know?
32. Should your life partner be either executor of your estate or trustee of your trust? Please describe your feelings about this subject.
33. Do you have siblings? If so, please describe your present relationship with each sibling, including a description of any events that caused disruption or severance of any relationships with them.
34. How did the way in which your parents raised you affect your relationships with your siblings?
35. Do any of your siblings have a serious mental illness or suffer from alcohol or drug dependence? If so, how has this impacted your life?
36. Did your parents spend more money on a sibling than they did on you? If so, please describe and state whether you felt this sibling was more favored by your parents and whether it had any impact on your relationship with that sibling.
37. Do you have children? If so, please describe each child as well as the present status of your relationship with each child and the reason for your feelings in this regard, including your feelings about whether you have favored a child over the others.
38. How well do your children get along, and how do you expect them to get along after your death?
39. Do you discuss your business or your estate planning with your children? Please describe your reasons either why you do or you do not, including whether you have discussed your business or your estate planning with all your children.
40. Have you made any promises to any of your children concerning your estate planning? If so, please describe the details.
41. Are your present estate planning documents consistent with the promises you have made to your children? If not, please explain the inconsistencies.
Past experiences with estates or trusts
42. Are you, do you expect to be, or have you ever been, the beneficiary of an estate or trust? If so, what was your experience, and how has that experience impacted your own estate planning?
43. Did you learn of your interest in the estate or trust from the person who gave it to you? Were you asked for any input in the estate planning of the person who gave it to you?