Less than 50% of married couples have established an estate plan. This is an alarming statistic and it suggests that there may be some psychological barriers that prevent people from preparing this vitally important plan for their families. Perhaps the constantly changing nature of federal estate tax laws has resulted in estate planning fatigue. There is more to estate planning, however, than the size of an estate. Some of the very basic reasons to have an estate plan are:
Appointing guardians for minor children
Designating to whom our assets will pass and under what circumstances
Providing for beneficiaries with special needs
Providing protection from creditors
Fulfilling philanthropic desires
Why, despite all of these advantages of creating a basic estate plan, do so many people avoid it? The answer might lie within some of the following psychological barriers that prevent our clients from taking important action.
Inability to make a decision. The decisions that need to be made as part of the estate-planning process are significant. They are numerous and emotional. “Who will care for my children when I’m gone?” “What are my end-of-life preferences?” “When do I want the plug pulled?” These decisions have nothing to do with the size of an estate. Often, due to indecision, a client will do nothing, leaving these critical life decisions in the hands of a Judge.
Lack of urgency. In many of the discussions I’ve had with clients about planning for the transition of their estates, they often use the phrase, “if I die” rather than, “when I die” as they discuss their wishes. This language signals a deep resistance to acknowledging their own mortality. It’s natural for people to want to put off discussions about what will happen upon their incapacity or death. As a result of their delay in contacting an attorney, they will likely add to the grief, time and expense involved in handling their assets and their estate upon incapacity or death.
Resistance to revisiting the plan. “It was difficult enough to get through the planning process once…now I have to revisit it?!” This is a common refrain that we hear, and it’s where the concept of “estate planning fatigue” rears its head again. If clients don’t revisit their plan, that plan can become obsolete, and the results may be far off course from the desired outcome.
Overcoming the Barriers
As an active member with the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, I use the following techniques to help our clients overcome these barriers and combat estate planning fatigue:
1. Education. I take time to educate our clients about the benefits of planning that aren’t tax related. What are your greatest concerns and dreams. Is it family? Disability? Concern about creditors? Desire to make a difference through philanthropy? By focusing on what’s meaningful to our clients, it’s easier to motivate them to action.
2. Explaining the risks of failing to plan. Recognizing the risks of failing to plan can also break down barriers. If clients have young children, and they do nothing about appointing a guardian, the court will do it for them. Do you think that a judge who doesn’t know you will have better judgment than you in selecting a guardian for your children?
3. Hold their hand. We are in a relationship business. Our clients know that we understand their reluctance and that we’re here to partner with them during the planning process. We know these are difficult decisions, but estate planning is a process, not a one-time event. Choices can be changed. And we keep all our clinet’s on task by setting regular times to touch base and check in on their progress.
4. Decision Fatigue: Estate planning requires many decisions and, if tackled all at once, can result in decision fatigue. That’s when the brain shuts down because there are too many decisions to make in a short period of time. This leaves us feeling overwhelmed, and we may rush decisions or take reckless short cuts. We encourage our clients to take time to develop an estate plan and map out a manageable time frame to address the various issues. Prioritize the decisions that need to be made and tackle the most significant ones first. This will help keep them energized and will fight off fatigue.
We work closely with all of our clients to create a plan designed to achieve their goals – for the unexpected disability – and for the generations to come.