Thursday, April 9, 2015

Working Together to Assist Clients

Today’s blog begins a series focused how attorneys and financial planners can work together to assist clients following the death of a loved one. Over the coming month we will address a variety of areas where clients benefit when their advisors work together as a team to make a very difficult time in their lives a little easier. We invite and encourage our readers to send us their thoughts on these issues so that we can take them into account as we tackle this complex subject.

     The loss of a loved one is one of the most emotionally difficult experiences a person will ever face. Sadly, during our careers as planners and advisors, we face the loss of a client, with unfortunate regularity. When those clients leave behind a surviving spouse or children, it is important to be prepared to assist those survivors while being mindful of their grief over their own loss. This is a perfect opportunity for the attorney and the financial planner to work together for the maximum benefit of their client.
     There are a wide variety of issues that arise after a death, including the administration of the decedent’s estate and trust, updating estate planning documents for surviving spouses, and making financial decisions that take into account their changed circumstances. Some of these decisions must take priority over others and it falls to attorney and planners, who handle these matters with more regularity, to keep clients from becoming overwhelmed by the decisions that must be made, even as the client still grieves for their loved one. 
     Immediately following a death it is important to quickly determine if there are any documents showing the deceased client wished to make anatomical gifts, had a prepaid funeral, or left specific instructions for funeral or memorial services, as well as a specific burial request. This is important first because such instructions elevate the need for survivors to make certain decision, but also because discovering these instructions after the survivors take other contrary actions can be devastating. 
     After addressing matters related to the disposition of the decedent’s remains, the personal feelings of the client are paramount and their mourning should take precedence over meetings with planners and advisors, but when they are able, it is important to begin the process of administering the estate and trust. A first step in the process is to determine a list of assets and values held in the estate of, or a living trust of, the deceased spouse. The client's planner often as this information and is the best person to assist in developing a list of assets. Documents should be reviewed to determine ownership of assets and beneficiaries of any insurance policies or IRAs. A review of estate planning documents will indicate whom beneficiaries are, what are the terms of distribution, and who are the persons chosen to help administer the estate, the personal representative and the successor Trustee.
     In this stage of the process, the attorney can assist the client in determining whether any probate of assets is necessary and whether it is necessary to file a federal estate tax return. If a business was part of the deceased's estate, it is important that the surviving spouse and successor Trustee continue to handle the management of that business appropriately. It is also important to determine if any Buy-Sell Agreements exist to govern the transfer of the business to surviving partners. Finally, if there are any assets outside of the state of Michigan these will also have to be administered. 
     With their more complete knowledge of the assets, the planner is invaluable at this point in the process for determining what assets remain available for the spouse, revising  the surviving spouse’s investment plan and providing a strategy for cash flow for both the short-term and long-term to assist the client in maintaining his or her lifestyle.
     This only begins to scratch the surface of the choices that face clients at this difficult time in their lives. Over the coming weeks we will address a variety of issues in greater detail, paying special attention to how attorneys and financial planners can work together to assist clients in managing these issues. As we continue to explore this topic we must remind ourselves that as important as this planning is to our clients, we must always balance the need to make decisions with the client’s need to mourn their loved ones.

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