Virtual Estate Planning
The process of establishing legal documents, such as a will or living trust, to create a plan for the seamless transfer of property and assets to loved ones in the event of death and/or incapacity from the comfort of home, without the need to travel to an attorney's office for in-person meetings.
For some clients, the concept of virtual estate planning through online questionnaires, video conferencing, phone and/or email is a dream come true. In fact, I have several clients who "put off" creating their will or living trust for many years simply because they did not want to deal with the hassle of having to visit the estate planning attorney in-person and talk about an uncomfortable topic they felt they knew little about. I also have many clients who work for large tech companies and are very accustomed to working remotely and collaborating online. They prefer the flexibility and convenience of being able to complete their estate plans virtually.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an almost immediate adaptation to virtual meetings of all kinds. "Even my 4 year old knows how to use Zoom," a new client told me in an initial call this past week. Without a doubt, the coronavirus response of sheltering-in-place caused many people to get comfortable with these modern video conferencing tools at an accelerated pace.
All of our meetings these days occur over Zoom, FaceTime or via phone, because it's the only option during the shelter-in-place order (and will continue to be a prudent option as the economy opens back up). The byproduct is that we've been able to engage close to a hundred clients virtually in the past few months, and what I've learned is this: for most people, virtual estate planning is working really, really well.
Trapped in Traditionalist Thinking
Even though COVID-19 has inspired more people to embrace virtual estate planning, for some the concept of meeting with their attorney online to prepare their will and trust is not what they had "in mind." Being so used to meeting with professionals in-person, it's not uncommon for these clients to ask some version of the following early in intake the process (these are quotes from actual conversations):
"You mean we won't be meeting in-person?"
"Do you have a projected date when you will be offering in-person meetings?"
and my favorite...
"Will we ever meet in-person?"
For some of these clients, the traditional expectations are set-in-stone, and they are simply better off sticking with a format in which they are most comfortable: meeting with their estate planing attorney in-person (note the use of the phrase "in-person" as opposed to the term "face-to-face," which can be accomplished via video call). Traditional clients are going to be much happier with an in-person experience, even if it means waiting until that option becomes more readily available or paying a premium for the in-person experience (my firm charges $500-$600 for an in-person design consultation, whereas the same consultation via Zoom is complimentary).
A Shift in Mindset
I've had several clients over the past couple of months who expressed a preference for an in-person meeting initially, but remained open minded when it became apparent that they would need to proceed virtually because of COVID-19. Once we completed our first virtual meeting, any reservations they may have had initially were resolved, and they felt very comfortable about moving forward. Then, when we completed the project (virtually), they were very pleased with the end result. See the following excerpt from a Yelp review posted from a client of ours in Hayward CA last week:
"As it turned out, the option of doing business on-line that we selected before the pandemic, was a good choice in the coronavirus situation. The whole process that Brian employs for the preparation of the Trust documents is straightforward and easy to follow starting from the initial questionnaire, through the first draft and final signing. Particularly helpful are detailed, written instructions that Brian provides for each document: where and when to sign, which signatures have to be witnessed or notarized... Each set of documents is indexed, pages are numbered. It is easy to navigate thru the whole package. The final product is very professional and elegant at the same time."
The above result is more than common, it's the norm.
I believe a successful virtual estate planning experience starts with a shift in the mindset that in-person service is somehow superior to virtual service. One contributing factor is our own expectations. We are more likely to feel comfortable (at least initially) if a process is in line with our expectations. Therefore, if a client goes into the estate planning process with an ingrained expectation that they will be physically sitting down in the attorney's office, they will have to be willing to set aside that expectation and be open minded to another way of doing things if they are going to proceed virtually. In my experience, when a client is able to remain open minded to the idea of completing an initial online interview/questionnaire and then completes a Zoom consultation, they quickly learn that they are in good hands and become quite comfortable with (and even partial to) the virtual experience.
Another factor involves our existing beliefs. Specifically, what underlying beliefs contribute to a conclusion that in-person service is somehow better than meeting and collaborating virtually? In my experience, the most common belief is that in-person communication is more complete, because it allows for us to completely observe each other's body language. But even if that is true, does the difference really matter that much in this particular context? In other words, isn't it possible that video conferencing can still prove to be perfectly adequate in terms of meeting the need for non-verbal communication with your lawyer?
Granted, body language and related cues are key to non-verbal communication, I'm not here to deny that at all. However, in my opinion, modern day video conferencing provides at least 80% of the non-verbal benefit of in-person meetings, with less distractions (sometimes physical presence and environmental factors can actually distract from the content of the discussion) and without the cost and inconvenience associated with in-person meetings. The following quote from a global provider of communication and network infrastructure services describes the relative comparison between in-person and video conferencing exceptionally well:
"While face-to-face contact provides a full picture of the level of tension or ease in the physical environment surrounding the meeting-goers, virtual conferencing still allows for the majority of emotions and nonverbal cues to be conveyed. Facial expressions, eye contact, arm crossing, stature and dress are still transmitted between users and still communicate underlying emotions and reactions to the communication that’s transpiring between participants."
My conclusion is that the marginal benefit of in-person meetings is not worth the added inconvenience and cost in most situations.
Can Virtual Meetings Be Better than In-Person Meetings?
I believe that, when all the relevant factors are considered, the answer is a resounding YES.
Let's consider the relative benefits of in-person meetings vs virtual meetings:
Benefits of In-Person Meetings
We've already described above how the main benefit of in-person meetings is that we get to experience the full dimension of body language and physical cues. The only other unique benefit that in-person meetings offer is they are helpful if there are tangible physical items to be reviewed or exchanged during the meeting. With estate planning, however, this can easily be accomplished by delivering documents to the law firm or client electronically or by mail. In fact, having the opportunity to review existing client documents before a Zoom meeting makes for a much more efficient and productive meeting than would be the case if the client simply showed up on site with documents in hand.
Benefits of Meeting Virtually
This could easily be it's own article, so I will just briefly outline the benefits to virtual estate planning (or any virtual meeting) in bullet point fashion:
Convenience. There's no need to travel or interrupt your daily routine. All preparation can be completed online and on your schedule. For meetings, simply click a link and you're underway.
Efficiency. Virtual meetings over Zoom tend to be more focused and to the point than in-person meetings. There's still a brief and genuine exchange of pleasantries, but in general it's okay to dive right in. Also, since it so convenient to simply hop on a video call, it's perfectly acceptable to have shorter, more frequent meetings rather than jamming all discussion items into one session.
Location is not a factor. You aren't confined to your local area. Your estate planning attorney can be anywhere - as long as they're licensed in your state.
Better information sharing. I'm convinced that reviewing documents shared over my screen via Zoom is better than looking over my shoulder at a document in-person. I can also share other information (whiteboards, client forms, and websites) seamlessly and with ease during a virtual meeting simply by sharing my screen, and can even modify documents with clients in real time. Forbes agrees with me here, noting the following in a recent article:
"In many cases, participants find online meetings work better than the real thing because it’s easier to exchange and modify information on the fly."
Cost Savings. This comes in many forms. Legal fees to the client are (or at least should be) reduced based on the reduction in cost to the law firm by providing virtual services, and the need for less attorney face time and hand-holding. Their is also "opportunity cost" savings, because we don't need to give up as much precious time (and the opportunities that time can provide us) to meet and collaborate virtually than we would in-person. Finally, there's less of a cost imposed on our environment when we meet virtually (think of the lovely pictures of clean skies that appeared online after just a month of sheltering-in-place).
Making Virtual Estate Planning Work for You
Virtual estate planning for law firms is just starting to become "a thing" because of COVID-19. Meanwhile, my firm had a process for virtual estate planning in place a year before the pandemic hit. In fact, a year before the pandemic I was spending evenings and weekends developing our online interview platform. If we hadn't had that up and running, it would have been a real struggle to adapt on the fly. I'd go as far as to say it would have been impossible to serve people effectively and keep up. But we're thriving right now because we've been ready for this.
It takes much more than simply switching to video conferencing to be able to provide a fantastic client experience when it comes to virtual estate planning. For one thing, the intake process has to be user friendly enough for clients to actually use (and preferably be hosted online vs using paper forms or pdfs). It also has to be comprehensive enough to provide the law firm with a clear picture of your situation so that we can give you the best advice. Next, the attorney had better be an adept communicator and coach to help guide the process along. As awesome as the virtual dynamic can be, it is different than traditional methods, and there is a leaning curve involved. Lastly, the signing protocol and instructions have to be clear and streamlined, since the client will be taking on a bit more responsibility for that task. It helps if they know exactly what to do in a paint-by-numbers fashion, and what to return to the law firm post-signing.
All of the above is super doable, but it takes some care and skill on the part of the law firm to make it really work well for the client. I'm extremely passionate about virtual service, which keeps me in a state of constant improvement in this area (my dear fiancee Christina can attest to this).
If you'd like to learn more about estate planning, or virtual service options, please take a look at our website or get in touch with me personally.