How to Start an Estate Planning Practice: Building Your Process
How to Start An Estate Planning Practice: Building Your Process
Estate lawyers are acutely aware of the importance of having a documented estate planning process. It helps improve the client experience, protects against liability, and increases file efficiency.
We’ve had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of estate lawyers across Canada about their estate planning process. In this blog post, we’ll highlight 10 stages of a file and why they are important. We’ve also created a downloadable estate planning file checklist featuring these steps with the help from experts at Hull and Hull LLP. This checklist can serve as a helpful foundation for starting or improving your estate planning practice. The checklist is fully customizable so you can adapt it to your own practice.
10 Stage Estate Planning Process:
- Inquiry: Many lawyers will begin with an introductory email which outlines their process, expected timing, and fees. The inquiry stage is important for both clients and lawyers, as it sets client expectations and weeds out undesirable clients. It also provides a great opportunity to identify the referral source and help with your marketing.
- Data Collection: Questionnaires are most commonly used to collect data prior to a client meeting. It’s important to have a thorough questionnaire to ensure you capture all the information needed for the planning stage. Remember that “inadequate investigation” is the number one cause of claims against estate lawyers! While full asset information might not be crucial in every file, you won’t know you don’t need it until you actually get it. Having that information gives you a better sense of how difficult or simple the plan will need to be and ensures that you don’t miss any important issue.
- Retainer: Having a retainer agreement sets the scope of your work and confirms any limits to the services you provide, such as not providing foreign advice or tax advice. The retainer also sets out fee arrangements. Many lawyers get a deposit before starting to draft. Many wills clients are slow to finish up and sign their wills. If you are only getting paid, if and when they sign, you could end up working for free for a long time.
- Planning: This is where the lawyer adds the most value. It is helpful to provide the client with context of how wills work, follow a logical structure that is easy to follow, break down any complexities into options and use visual aids to demonstrate their instructions and plan. Obviously, documenting the client’s instructions is fundamental. Careful notes or audio recordings should document specific instructions given by the client and questions asked by the lawyer.
- Drafting: Many lawyers use precedents to draft Wills. While precedents may be very helpful as a starting point, the draft has to take into account the client’s unique circumstance. On average, the manual drafting stage takes approximately 1-3 hours depending on the complexity of the instructions. With technology, the drafting stage can now be easily streamlined and the time expended reduced to minutes.
- Client Review: Using an easy to understand guide to summarize the Will is very helpful for clients. A visual and text summary helps clients understand what’s in their will without legalese. Clients are typically responsible for ensuring that all names in the will are spelled correctly and for identifying any factual errors. With technology, those should be pretty much eliminated. Keeping a record of the changes made between drafts is also a good idea.
- Execution: The process for execution of the Will is very strict. Both witnesses and the Will-maker must be in the physical or virtual presence of one another when the Will is executed. If there were any changes made from the Review meeting to the final draft, it is a good idea to point those out to the client. Even if there were no changes, you may also want to do another quick review of the key points of the will with the client - the executors and the disposition of the estate.
- Fee: When determining an appropriate fee, consider the time required to draft a will, the risk of liability, and what their competition is charging.
- Reporting/Closing: Reporting letters confirm that the retainer is at an end and often identify any major issues raised by the lawyer. A standardized reporting letter can protect lawyers against many areas of liability.
- Storage/Delivery: Many lawyers return the original will to a client. It is customary to also provide an affidavit of execution with the original. If the law firm agrees to store the original will, the Will must be kept in a safe place. Additionally, it would be prudent to have an escrow agreement which outlines the parameters for releasing a Will or power of attorney document.
Download our fully customizable estate planning checklist to set your practice up for future efficiency growth and client experience.