Recognizing that many clients make estate plans but fail to keep them updated, some estate planning lawyers are experimenting with new ways to keep clients in the fold and up to date.
One Virginia lawyer is traveling to Massachusetts to learn about a program where clients agree to subscribe to an ongoing estate planning maintenance program.
Other lawyers, meanwhile, work to perfect more traditional methods of urging clients to return to the law office, using printed alerts, seminars, and personal letters.
All agree it can be a challenge to get some clients to return to review the status of wills, trusts and other documents. When a client dies or becomes incompetent, lawyers say, documents prepared years earlier too often fail to protect new assets or take account of changes in the law or the family situation.
“You don’t have the same family members and you certainly don’t have the same assets that you did five or 10 years before,” said Richmond lawyer Susan McMakin.
Besides changes in the tax laws, McMakin says there are other factors that require estate plans be kept up to date. As one example, she pointed to older documents where the opinion of two doctors was required to establish disability. Nowadays, she said, doctors are less willing to provide such opinions, and other standards are used.
“People who haven’t been back here for 10 years or 15 years don’t have that up to date,” she said.
Currently, McMakin said she does not have a fully developed maintenance program. “I do a general interest seminar for my clients every year, and we try to send out a newsletter every couple of years outlining the changes that have come about and inviting people to come in,” she said.
Attorneys may be more personal and persistent in encouraging follow up. Neil L. Rose of Virginia Beach says it’s good marketing to send letters to clients every three to five years. He said he tells clients when they sign documents to call again if they read about changes in the law or experience “life cycle” events, such as births or deaths in the family.
Many lawyers, however, say it’s time to abandon the one-at-a-time transaction approach to estate planning in favor of a continuous relationship. Next month, McMakin will travel to Lynnfield, Mass., to attend the two-day “Client Maintenance Academy” established by estate planning lawyer Vincent E. Bonazzoli.
Bonazzoli is an apostle of the continuous updating approach for estate planning clients, and he’s spreading the gospel through articles and his in-house seminars.
“We want them to create their own customized maintenance program,” he said. Firms have been doing it on a trial and error basis for a decade, he said. His program is designed to help lawyers find the formula that best fits their practice.
Under a maintenance program, the client signs a contract for ongoing legal services with periodic flat fees based on the size and complexity of the estate. Clients get annual meetings with lawyers to update documents, check on new assets and review goals.
Bonazzoli’s plan is mandatory – he requires all clients to sign on. Not every client is right for the program. Unreasonable or overly demanding clients would not fit. “We only hire nice clients,” Bonazzoli said. He said he has 345 families on his maintenance plan now.
Clients are happy with the program, Bonazzoli said. “People in my maintenance program are my best referral source, by far,” he said. “All of sudden we get a lot of family members.”
The value of the law practice can double, he said, since there is a well-defined income stream from clients who have agreed to maintain an on-going relationship.
McMakin said the subscription-based client maintenance concept was first promoted in the 1990’s through the National Network of Estate Planning Attorneys. Wealth Counsel is another support organization that has published articles on client maintenance programs.
“Keeping up to date is absolutely necessary for the estate planning law client because so much can change in their personal situation and in the law,” McMakin said.
“That annual or biannual check of bank accounts, portfolio accounts, real estate holdings, business holdings is extremely important,” she said. She has 10 clients ready to sign on for a maintenance program, and hopes to encourage others.
“I think it’s the wave of the future,” she said.