Transactional versus relational estate planning

by | Mar 16, 2021 | Blog, Fiduciary, Guardianship

The concept of “estate planning” has evolved dramatically over the last half-century, in tandem with the dramatic evolution in health care (and long-term care in particular) during that same time.  Whereas before estate planning was focused almost entirely on the orderly posthumous disposition of a person’s assets, now it must consider a person’s lifetime needs as well. 

Indeed, the estate planning client typically has a goal of ensuring the orderly disposition of their worldly goods upon their death.  But, most estate planning clients nowadays have a further, and perhaps overarching, lifetime goal as well:  To (1) optimize their chances of quality care (2) within the context of a quality of life they intend for themselves, and (3) which can be supported by their assets and income, as well as applicable public benefit programs. 

As tools to help achieve these lifetime goals, powers of attorney, health care declarations, living wills, POST forms, out-of-hospital do not resuscitate directives, and funeral planning declarations have all joined traditional wills and trusts to define the contents of a comprehensive estate plan. 

Most of those modern estate planning tools are intended to be activated, if needed, during the client’s lifetime.  They are designed to designate and empower someone the client has chosen to serve as their surrogate to make financial and health care decisions when they can’t.  The tools are, effectively, transactional documents that can set the legal framework to carry out the client’s lifetime estate planning goals when and if they are unable to do so themselves.

However, realizing the client’s lifetime goals requires more than the transactional documents themselves.  Navigating today’s complex health care system, particularly the long-term care system, can be a daunting task for the lay person. And this is true not only for the designated surrogate, but even for the client themselves while they retain the legal capacity to manage their own personal and business affairs. 

This is a relational approach to estate planning: one where you regularly assess the clients’ needs, ensure their estate plan documents are still working for them, and also determine whether or not their named agents are truly ready and able to serve. This turns estate planning from a transactional, one-off client experience into a long-term, custom-tailored relationship that ensures the clients’ needs are always being met.

The relationship approach is much more client-centered and is especially important for clients who are aging, who are contemplating long-term care, and who need assistance managing their financial matters or health care issues during life.

Part of the role of a relational estate plan is assisting clients in naming their response team: the group of individuals and/or organizations who will assist the client to manage finances and healthcare.

Tune in next month for a blog post discussing how to advise your clients in setting up the best possible response team.