What Makes Trust & Estates Workflow Different?

Every law practice has unique operational challenges. Smoothing out those challenges to get the most from available resources is a challenge in itself, often requiring an approach tailored to a specific field. Estate settlement and estate planning are two prime examples.

The Unique Challenges of Estate Settlement and Administration

Estate settlement is often a protracted process. It can take several years and involves multiple steps, from basic administration to dealing with the probate court to various tax filings, all requiring substantial documentation.

Settlement cases typically require involvement from multiple team members at different times. Good communication across the case team and the ability to execute in parallel are vital. There are many filing deadlines involving county, state, and national authorities, and the consequences of missing those deadlines can be severe.

To add to the pressure, some due dates are triggered by particular events associated with the case, such as notifying beneficiaries named in a will, while others, such as tax returns, are tied to the calendar year. The procession of deadlines can lead to performance paranoia. Each team member must constantly reassure the others that they are staying on track.

In addition, there is often a large amount of data associated with settlement cases. There are individual assets and liabilities to account for. There’s contact information ranging from personal representatives to creditors for family members and others associated with the case. And then there are the subject matter experts enlisted to help inexperienced or disengaged clients make sound decisions. All these disparate elements need to be coordinated.

How Is the Workflow of Estate Planning Different From Estate Settlement?

In contrast to settlement cases, estate planning is marked by short bursts of activity that follow more of a production line mentality. While the general deliverables — a plan and supporting documents — are similar for many clients, attorneys have a variety of drafting options to accomplish estate planning goals.

Typically, the emphasis in estate planning is on tracking performance to a schedule. Cases usually follow a concise high-level process that includes meeting with the client, producing a draft plan, signing the plan, and handling any follow-up requirements. Completing each stage in the process sets the target date for the next.

At high-performing planning practices, the goal is to run this drill as frequently and efficiently as possible. The attorneys focus on managing clients and crafting appropriate plans for each. And although plan delivery is typically concentrated into a few weeks or months, certain “sleeper issues” can arise at a later date, including:

•   Ongoing administration — Crummey requirements related to an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT), for example. To maintain its reputation with the client, the firm must stay on top of these kinds of regularly occurring activities.

•   Changes in statutes that might impact the validity of various planning strategies. The firm needs a mechanism for identifying clients whose plans need to be revised.

•   Turnover at the firm involving attorneys named to specific roles in planning documents. Departures and retirements are inevitable, and the firm needs a contingency for identifying any planning documents that are impacted as a result. That will enable the firm to determine the best approach for maintaining its relationship with the affected clients.

Success Is Systematic

A lucky few firms have the luxury of focusing on just one of the processes described here. Most have to master both. And while it might be tempting to use a one-size-fits-all approach to estate settlement and estate planning, the result is likely to be chaos because of the inherent differences between the two.

Building high-quality teams that understand the particular requirements of estate cases is an obvious solution. However, it is also imperative that firms establish clear procedures that are not dependent on the skills or experience of any one attorney. Ideally, you want your people running the system, not being the system.

If you have any questions about organizing estate settlement or estate planning or you would like a more in-depth discussion about ways to address the unique challenges of each, please get in touch. This is what we do.

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