Creating Effective Estate
Planning and Settlement Checklists
Checklists are vital tools for organizing and maintaining an effective workflow at trust and estates practices. Good checklists ensure a consistent level of attention to all files, and they reduce the chance of missing deadlines.
Basic Checklist Architecture
As a starting point for creating better checklists, it helps to consider workflow in terms of four basic categories: tasks, deadlines, assignments, and completions. Also, it’s important to understand that not all checklists are created equal — nor should they be. Estate planning and estate settlement are two very different processes that vary in scope and complexity. Their respective checklists should reflect this.
Planning checklists are much shorter. They may involve just one or two processes (e.g., pre- and post-signing) encompassing 10 to 15 tasks. Settlement checklists will often include more than 100 tasks. With that in mind, you should build planning checklists with the idea of incorporating additional processes as each client’s circumstances require — administering different types of trust, for example.
With settlement checklists, you take the opposite approach: Start with the universe and get rid of what you don’t need. But in each case the goal is the same. You want an overarching staff solution that establishes how things should be done but which is flexible enough to be quickly built up (planning) or cut down (settlement) based on the specifics of the case.
With those critical distinctions in mind, let’s look at the four basic building blocks of a good checklist:
1) Tasks: As mentioned above, estate settlements typically require multiple tasks, often over an extended time. Start your checklist by grouping tasks according to particular criteria, such as whether they are probate- or tax-related, or by the phase when they occur, such as in the first 90 days, three to nine months after DoD, etc. The granularity should reflect your team’s capabilities. At some organizations, a single task marked “Prepare, Sign, File, Send to Beneficiaries & File PoS” could be sufficient. Other firms might need to break that all-encompassing responsibility down into multiple subtasks. There is no single right way to do it; the degree of detail and level of organization of your tasks checklist should be consistent with your firm’s culture.
2) Deadlines: This is one area where the difference between planning and settlement is clearest. Due dates within planning are normally self-referential — e.g., you want to get the draft done within seven days after the client meeting. Settlement dates tend to have external triggers such as publication of notice to creditors within 30 days of the date of death. It’s important for everyone on the case team to understand the different cadences so they develop a feel for when particular tasks come due.
3) Assignments: Make sure to assign responsibility for completing every task to a member of your case team. Even if the task is conducted by someone outside the organization — an external CPA, for example — a team member needs to take ownership of that task. That helps to avoid informational black holes and nasty surprises — which, in accordance with Murphy’s Law, tend to happen at the most inconvenient times.
4) Completions: Track tasks based on their completion status. It’s best to stick with three basic categories: “Due”, “Past Due”, or “Done”. Make sure there’s a designated way to indicate completion, even if it’s just a literal check mark. Remember, checklists are about tracking what has been done. (Items that explicitly require a record of when they were done, such as filing a Federal Estate Tax Return, should be recorded separately as part of the case record.)
Building Your Checklist
Using the principles outlined above, you can design your master checklist. Start with a pad and paper for your high-level design, if you want, but we suggest moving to Excel before you start to marshal tasks. You will need to cut and paste.
Start broadly, concentrating on stages and tasks, as you map your basic process. You can get into the granular details, including due dates and assignments, later. You will probably find that you want to have alternative processes — Formal Probate versus Informal Probate, for example. Include both in your master, and either make “Choose the appropriate probate process” an explicit task in your checklist or follow different versions for each through to the end.
Operationalizing and Evaluating Your Checklist
Once you have created master checklists that capture how you want to conduct different types of business, you might find that implementing them requires pushing beyond the technical limitations of Excel and Post-it Notes. Before you upgrade your technology, however, be sure that your proposed checklist system won’t also exceed the technical skills of your case teams.
Whatever method of implementation you choose, be sure your checklists have the following characteristics:
• Repeatability: The last thing you want is to design a new checklist from scratch for every case. Your master checklist ought to serve as a viable starting point each time. Ideally, the deadlines for each case will calculate automatically based on the underlying logic you applied for calculating due dates. In a similar vein, you don’t want to manually assign each task. If you categorize responsibility based on roles within the case team, the individual assigned to a specific role on a case automatically becomes responsible for all of the assigned tasks for that role.
• Adaptability: For estate settlement, you should be able to adapt your master checklist to the specific requirements of the case quickly and easily. Not all tasks or processes on the master checklist apply to every case. Other cases require specific actions that are not common enough to include on the master — “Firearm Ownership,” for example — but still require a prescribed workflow. Also, given the duration of many estate settlement cases, you need the flexibility to change the assignment of tasks, either individually or when the case team changes. Finally, although your master checklist may indicate an ideal due date for tasks, you want to be able to override this in individual cases and set some dates manually. With certain tasks you might not be able to prescribe a concrete due date at all. That’s normal — the team just needs to be aware of it.
• Transparency: In addition to making the entire checklist visible to all members of the case team, make sure there is a method to quickly provide status updates for specific tasks. Maybe a life insurance company has been slow to respond to a request for information or perhaps the calculated due date for a task has been pushed back after input from the personal representative. Team members need a simple way to convey these changes.
• Integration: It’s important to remember that each case-centric checklist assigns tasks to individuals and that those individuals are simultaneously receiving tasks from all their other cases. To stay on top of their workload, team members need a way to quickly and holistically review everything they are responsible for. They should not have to review individual checklists of every case they are assigned to in order to check that they are up to date or to flag the next task coming due.
One Last Item for Your Checklist: Contact Us
Checklists are only a part of what we do with the EstateWorks platform, of course, but they are frequently the basis for managing your estate settlement and planning cases more effectively and efficiently. If you would like to discuss how checklists can help you institutionalize your best practices, please get in touch. It’s what we do.
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