Estate management is changing – but you can keep ahead of the curve

With the launch of their new whitepaper, LEAP share that societal changes and technological advancements are affecting the way estates are managed: but practitioners must be proactive to reap the rewards.
A lawyer sits opposites two older clients and smiles at them.
Photograph: fizkes

Talk of wills and probate departments can conjure up a picture of a dusty practice in a back corner; a bit slow and a bit old fashioned.

In reality, this area of legal practice probably moves quicker than any other area of law, because it has to respond to how we are living our lives today.

Gone are the days when estate planning involved listing paper assets and drafting a once-only paper will in a standard format, saved in a will book, where spouses left a property and some cash to each other and their children.

Interesting and insightful things are happening in this space, however there are many challenges for practitioners.

The system is dealing with acts of law that haven’t changed in over 150 years.

Back in 1837 when the Wills Act was introduced, it was a case of meeting with a solicitor who would calligraph a document on parchment to be signed by a witness.

Although it is now possible to complete an entire conveyancing transaction online, wills cannot yet be digitally signed.

However, estate planning is changing as society changes, and as technology advances, practitioners need access to the latest specialist tools and best practice software to deliver effective estate management services and produce fit-for-purpose wills.

Effective estate management today

Legal professionals who manage estates need to consider two factors:

  • how to manage the changing nature of society and relationships to produce effective lifetime planning
  • how to use software to assist with the planning and management of today’s complex digital estates

Your clients today will have very different asset portfolios to previous generations.

Twenty years ago, the standard assets of a will would likely be a property and some savings. Today, digital assets of both financial and sentimental value are the norm.

Further, many of your clients’ assets will not be physical. For example, many of us prefer to store our photos digitally in the cloud. So, how are these bequeathed and passed down? What happens to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram accounts when the account holder is deceased?

How are the balances of digital-only bank accounts, PayPal and betting accounts accessed and passed on? Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrency, which are designed to be non-traceable, can be more challenging to bequeath for that reason.

Societal changes mean that blended families are common, including children and family members from previous relationships, making standard intestacy law inadequate as a baseline.

Opportunities for practitioners and law firms

Solicitors are empowered by the essential services they provide, which enable them to create a trusted bond with their clients.

Practitioners can utilise technology and societal changes to have a more regular presence in their clients’ lives, providing a more proactive service and creating a better business relationship.

Be proactive with clients making wills

Your clients will typically make a will for either of two main reasons:
  • they reach an age when they think they should have will, or
  • someone close to them has died intestate

Rather than leaving it so late, clients should be thinking about putting provisions in place earlier in their lives, using a dynamic service where documents can change alongside their circumstances.

Solicitors have opportunities to have these planning conversations early.

A good time to ask a client about this is when they are buying their first home: their financial assets will have been verified and they will be aware of their net-worth.

Use tech to get referrals

Legal professionals should look beyond outbound marketing as a referral source for their wills and properties department.

Every other department within the firm can pass referrals. For example, corporate departments that deal with businesses or business ownerships are an ideal referral source, as they deal with high-net-worth clients.

A single legal software tool can contain clients from across the firm, making cross-department referrals easy.

Use tech to make processes easier

Software can also expedite the estate management process if client details are kept on a single platform.

Digital document registry software, for example, can keep wills or lasting powers of attorney (LPAs) in a central place. This enables your client to have easy access to their documents to retrieve or update them.

Use software to be proactive with documents

Review dates can also be built into documentary registry software, prompting legal professionals to check in with their clients regularly to review their documents to ensure everything is current.

Aside from this, regular reviews can capture changing needs of your clients at different stages of their lives. For example, a client may want to consider giving gifts to loved ones from their estate later in life in the interests of tax efficiency.

Document reviews can also capture societal changes. New online accounts may have been created since the last review date, for example, and decisions on how to bequeath them can be made at each juncture.

These processes can also keep track of changes to will documents, creating a paper trail that can be used in cases where a will is disputed. This can also keep you – as the legal professional – safe, with a dated record of everything you have done for your client.

As society changes and technology evolves, it’s imperative that solicitors stay ahead of the curve to give their clients the best service and to reap the rewards.

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