Shame Shame Shame on the Estate Planning Industries — and Me Possibly Lending a Helping Hand

Every once in a while you hear yourself say something to someone, and then, inside your head, you immediately hear yourself saying to yourself, Never again: I must figure out a way to be able to never say that again.

Years ago that happened to me when I worked at a conventional financial planning firm and I heard myself say to a client, I don’t do revenues, by which I meant something like I don’t do career counseling, kinda like when a house-cleaner person says, I don’t do windows.

Hearing myself say that out loud, I breathed an internal never-again and kinda shook-on-it with myself, all barely consciously and all within the span of a second, and ever since I’ve done my best to work in a way that encompasses a person’s or a couple’s or a family’s entire financial life, or a business’s entire financial existence — and not just their balance sheets.

(Aside of the inside-baseball variety, which most readers, should skip: By contrast, asset-gatherers, by which-side-of-your-bread-and-butter-is-your-bread-buttered definition, are focused mostly on a client’s assets and, to some, but a much lesser extent, on a client’s liabilities — because liabilities are anti-assets and therefore can be used to either increase assets (by increasing total liabilities) or decrease assets (by decreasing total liabilities, such as by paying down a mortgage) — all of which leaves  the part of a client’s life having to do with revenues and expenses a/k/a the client’s P&L at least one large step removed from the asset-gatherer’s revenue-generator machine and, all things being equal, therefore at least one large step removed from the asset gatherer’s purview. And I don’t know about you, but when I’m sizing up a business, my favorite financial statement to look at first is the P&L a/k/a the income statement, and then the cash flow statement and last of all, the balance sheet.)

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This sort of internal never-again whisper happened again a couple of weeks ago, when I was having lunch with a very nice fellow and saying something to him which I often say to put people — normal folks, acting like normal human beings — at ease. But this time the words were slightly different (no two renditions are identical!), and this time time the words went far enough to draw out a no-no-no-no within me. It went something like this:

Look around us. I bet you dollars to donuts (or doughnuts) that half the people you can see right now don’t have their estate planning done — no trust, no medical directives, no powers of attorney, etc., let alone a will.

And if we expand our view to encompass everyone within five miles of here, I’d bet you we’d find the same thing. And this is downtown SF! Expand out to include the whole state and gosh only knows what the ratio is, but I’ll bet it’s even lower — 40% maybe? I’ve never seen stats, but I can tell you that, in the world in which I ply my craft, half the folks coming to me do not have their estate planning done. And that includes people with young kids — the people who arguably need it the most.

So, my friend, you should not feel bad that you don’t have your estate planning done. Lots of people don’t.

You’re just being human. It’s not about you. It’s about all of us humans. We just don’t like going into the belly of this particular beast, do we? The beast we call: death. 

Then, being as I am capable of getting a bit hot under the collar about this sorry state of affairs, I cannot but help myself from continuing on, turning up the heat in the process:

And shame Shame SHAME on the estate planning industries for staring at rooms full of people like this and not feeling the need to do something about the sorry state of affairs in which half of everyone in their customer-base finds themselves un-served. That’s a huge base of un-served people. And at least some (most?) (all?) of that un-served base is un-served due to the failings of the estate planning industry at large. It’s a travesty.

Look at dentists. How many people like going into the belly of the beast that picks at their teeth and  makes their gums squirt blood, and does all sorts of unimaginable things inside people’s mouths all day long, all the while getting their jollies from all their cool, shiny, schmancy, perfect tools?

And how many folks in this room, do you suppose, don’t have their teeth cleaned twice a year, and then fix things when they break? I’ll bet 95% of the people in this room have that stuff all taken care of without blinking an eye (t’was a handsome place, full of handsome people with big teethy smiles . . . ). So you can call that a 95% effective utilization rate for dentists. They’ve figured out a way to help just about everyone have better dental health. Kudos to them. It’s good for their business and it’s wonderful for the world in which we live. A win/win.

And how about doctors? I’d take that one down quite a few notches — to maybe a 60% effective utilization rate — but I’ll bet it’s still a whole lot better than the 50%, at best, utilization I see in the estate planning field.

Somebody really outta do something!


So, yes, I heard my self saying that last line, and immediately thought, I need to have a proactive solution to that situation, rather than a whiny plaintive wail.

(Aside for language lover/sitcom lovers: Now, your basic whiny plaintive wail is not to be confused with your basic wino plaintiff whale. You see, back in my lawyering days I had many a sort of client, quite a few of them plaintiffs and probably a handful of them winos, but none of them whales, at least not of the the literal sort and only a few of the figurative sort — this all to be heard in the voice of Cliff Clavin).

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So how can I help?

I can’t do estate planning lawyering for people. Probably wouldn’t if I could. I did estate planning lawyering in the 80s, which is a very long time ago, indeed, and to get current I’d have to re-up my lawyer-license and re-up my learning and skills to get up to the can-design-bullet-proof-final-documents level. My desire to do that right now is zilch, smack dab against the zero lower bound.

So I can’t help in that regard.

And though I help lots of folks do their own investing and think it can be very empowering for people to have their hand on that particular tiller, I also typically don’t help people do their own estate planning because I’m not a big fan of do-it-yourself estate planning. Why? Because it’s potentially complicated, and there are lots of traps for the skilled but unwary, let alone the unskilled and unwary, and let alone let alone the totally clueless, as DIY EPers (Do-It-Yourself Estate Planners) typically would be.

And that means that some (many?) DIY EPers’ families will find that, when it’s time to put the DIY EPer’s hopefully-bullet-proof documents into effect, there’s a problem, which in turn sometimes means that they need to get the hardest signature of all to get: the signature of someone who just died.

There is some help for California residents in this regard, because California, unlike most states, has a statutory will, making it relatively easy for California-resident DIY EPers to not hurt themselves when they do their own will (though there are plenty of ways to screw up a Statutory Will, too).

Someday I’ll write about the Statutory Will it in here. Suffice to say for now that, for a lot of folks, it’s a great place to start (because it sets out the who-gets-what in a fairly bullet-proof way), but, also, that for just about everyone it’s not sufficient to all the tasks at hand (because estate planning involves a lot more than just the who-gets-what).

Bottom line, then, folks need to use lawyers to get their estate planning done, which means that, not only do they have to ride into the valley of (hopefully long in the future) death, but they must also, here and now, ride into the valley of lawyers. They must hire, interact with, and pay a lawyer. Eesh.

Between death and lawyers, then, there are all sorts of things normal folks would rather do. Like go to the dentist. Like go to the doctor. Like wash their car. Like just about anything else. Why, they’re even more likely to get their financial planning done than they are to get their estate planning done. Eeeeessssshhhhh.

How, then, to get them into gear?

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Well . . . I can help with that. I can most assuredly help people with the getting it done part.

I say this because, as a student of the human being animal and its never disappointingly-fascinating behavior, I reckon I’ve learned a thing or two about helping people get into action on getting into action generally, and on getting into action on getting their estate planning done specifically.

And right now I’m putting a lot of time and energy and creative juiceflow into building something that can help people do just that. I’m pretty sure I’ll make it a free download on this very site.

It has a little bit of the dentist’s cool tool aspect to it. And a bit of the Skinner and the Pavlov, too.

Please stay tuned for more . . .



Leave a Comment



  1. Posted by Lucia S. Nolan on Thursday, June 6, 2013 at 5am
    One glaring problem that I see time and time again in my estate planning practice is that in reality most estate plans simply don’t work. There are a multitude of reasons why estate plans fail, ranging from inadequate documents, to overlooking how assets are titled, to forgetting to update beneficiary designations, to failing to properly address family problems and dynamics.
  2. Posted by Katherine L. Skinner on Monday, June 10, 2013 at 11pm
    Too many people don’t plan. Individuals put off estate planning because they think they don’t own enough, they’re not old enough, they’re busy, think they have plenty of time, they’re confused and don’t know who can help them, or they just don’t want to think it. Then, when something happens to them, their families have to pick up the pieces.
  3. Posted by Arlene F. York on Friday, June 21, 2013 at 8am
    A root cause of this myth may be the word “Estate” itself. The word conjures up images in our minds, much like a luxury car commercial. When I think of the word “Estate”, I see an expensive car rolling up a long driveway to a large mansion, with thoroughbred horses striding alongside in a pasture bordered by white fencing. The home has large columns supporting the entry, and out back are a tennis court and a pool the size of a small lake. Since I don’t actually have these, I must not have an “Estate”, and therefore I don’t need to engage in “Estate Planning”. The truth is, your age and the size or value of your estate is immaterial to the issue of whether or not you need to engage in estate planning of some sort. The real issue is one of choice and control, and who has it.