Bespoke Estate Planning

Bespoke – [bəˈspōk].  Adjective.  Made to individual order (as in clothing); custom-made.

Shortly after the beginning of the year I visited with an old friend -- but a new client -- who had contacted me because she was interested in “getting a Will done.”  She is an educated, well-spoken professional with, I trusted, a certain amount of savvy when it came to matters legal and financial.  After gathering some initial demographic information – identifying her spouse and children and developing a rough idea of her net worth, the conversation unfolded something like this:

Client:  “So what kind of Will do you think I need?”

Me, confused:  “What kind? I don’t understand...”

Client, patiently:  “What sort of Will should I have?  I mean, you have – like what? – 3 or 4 different kinds of Wills on your computer and you just fill in our names, right?”

Me, catching on:  “Well, not exactly.”

Client, insistent:  “I mean, is there one form for married people and a different one for singles?  And maybe one if you have kids and another if you don’t?”

Me, smiling:  “See, here’s how this process works…”

We proceeded to have a long and thoughtful exploration of the client’s financial circumstances, some family issues that trouble her, her hopes and expectations for her children, and a possible legacy for her grandchildren.  Together, we eventually crafted a thoughtful plan that structured a safety net for her aging parents, provided protection and support for her spouse and children, and established a modest endowment for her college, all while minimizing future estate tax implications.  She slowly came to understand that the process of estate planning is centered on helping her identify what was important to her, educating her about available options, and selecting the best techniques currently available to us to construct a solution addressing her goals.

No two clients with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working have the same estate plan.  This should be intuitive as no two clients are the same, no two clients’ families are the same, and no two clients’ financial circumstances are the same.  To be sure, clients express similar themes and share similar aspirations, and there are strategies in the estate planner’s arsenal that are used with regularity, but each plan—when done right—is designed with the individual client in mind.

At its most fundamental level, estate planning starts with identifying the beneficiaries that you want to receive your assets after you pass away. However, custom, made-to-order estate planning goes well above and beyond that fundamental level – it also touches on some, or all, of these issues:

  • Instructions for passing on your values (religion, education, belief in hard work, and so forth) in addition to your valuables.
  • Provide direction for your physical care if you become disabled.
  • Name a guardian for minor children, and a trustee or fund manager to handle your children’s inheritance for them.
  • Provide a structure for family members who may have special needs in a fashion that will not disrupt available government benefits.
  • Develop strategies for family members who might be irresponsible with money, or who may need future protection from business or tort creditors or divorcing spouses.
  • Where appropriate, planning may include the acquisition of:
    • life insurance to provide for family members upon death;
    • disability income insurance to replace lost income if you can’t work due to illness, injury, or other disability; and
    • long-term care insurance to help pay for your care in case of an extended illness or injury.
  • Structure the transfer of a closely-held business at retirement, disability, or death.
  • Weave charitable planning into the planning process.
  • Selection of the right methods for naming beneficiaries for qualified retirement plans.
  • Plan to minimize taxes, court costs, and future legal fees.

My client came to understand that this type of planning is not a one-time event, but an organic, ongoing process that should evolve and mold to changing circumstances. As discussed in our last newsletter, planning should be reviewed and updated frequently as your family circumstances, financial situations, and the legal landscape change over your lifetime.

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This piece started with the definition of the word “bespoke.”   Though it has roots a couple hundred years deep, it has been finding its way into modern usage again – often cropping up in non-traditional contexts (e.g., bespoke cuisine; bespoke software solutions).  Its original usage sprang from the world of haberdashery where a custom handmade suit of clothes was often said to be “bespoke.”

All good tailors have the same building blocks for a suit of clothes—cloth, thread, buttons, patterns, and so forth—but it takes discussion with the customer, a keen eye for detail, the right selection of materials, and the masterful execution of the pattern that results in a well-crafted, form-fitting, bespoke suit.

In much the same way, all good estate planners have a variety of tools in their planning tool chests.  Knowing which tool is right for a client takes educated discussion, personal engagement, and sensitivity.   The result of this attorney-client collaboration is an estate plan custom designed for the individual client – a bespoke plan.

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