As we all adjust to a new normal during these unprecedented times, Trusts & Estates asked our readers to share how the current health and economic crisis is impacting their practice and relationship with clients. The biggest reported change, of course, is the transition to working remotely. However, even those who are fortunate enough to be part of a profession that largely allows for working remotely aren’t immune from the problems and difficult decisions almost every business is faced with in light of the current circumstances.
Only slightly more than half of respondents had a business continuity plan in place that adequately prepared them for a situation of this magnitude. Fortunately, 69% haven’t found the transition to working from home too difficult (with some saying they were already accustomed to part-time remote work prior to the pandemic). Some of the commonly cited difficulties include technical issues, not being able to meet with clients in person (especially with older clients who may not be as tech savvy), balancing work with family time and/or taking care of children and the stress of isolation.
Adjusting to Remote Work
As previously reported, many respondents are confirming that there’s in fact been an influx of business when it comes to clients wanting to update their wills. In particular, 42% report that the number of clients who want to update health care documents has increased. To comply with social distancing rules and accommodate working remotely, 84% of respondents are no longer holding face-to-face client meetings, instead resorting to a combination of phone, videoconferencing and email. A few have noted the hardship of executing documents because of their jurisdiction’s lack of remote online notarization laws (as of this writing, virtually every state has now passed an executive order permitting some sort of remote notarization).
Tough Business Decisions
Much like every other sector, estate-planning businesses are also faced with the tough decision of, unfortunately, having to furlough or lay off workers. Almost a quarter of respondents said they have already had to reduce support staff (such as secretaries, paralegals, interns, etc.), and 11% have had to reduce the number of professional staff (for example, attorneys, advisors, etc.). An equal percentage is also actively considering having to make similar changes. Less than 5% reported having to increase either support or professional staff. In addition, 43% are offering alternative work options such as furlough, sabbatical, part time and leave of absence.
According to the practitioners surveyed, clients’ fear of the virus is much bigger than their fear of the tanking economy. Such fear is what many experts are predicting can potentially ultimately lead us to an economic recession or depression. In an attempt to keep clients engaged and informed (and hopefully just a little bit more at ease), at a time when such information is needed more than ever, estate planners are offering increased online services—63% said that they have amped up the number of webinars, online chats and other communications. A majority believe that the state of the economy has presented planning opportunities for clients. Likely as a result, the demand for advice relating to retirement planning, estate planning and taxation, family business and investment strategy has largely increased, though insurance planning and charitable giving have mostly remained the same or dwindled somewhat, according to our survey (many commented that low current values and high exemptions make for great gifting opportunities, but those taking advantage appear to be focused on intrafamily gifting).
In Their Own Words
Here’s a look at what clients are finding most difficult about their new normal:
“Lack of that personal and intimate contact.”
“The inability to meet face to face with clients for planning discussions as well as a desire to avoid personal contact for signing of documents.”
“It's difficult to concentrate because of interruptions from family. School age children are home and need help with their online learning.”
“No consistent schedule.”
“Not 100% certain employees have Cybersecurity or use their time efficiently. Working less hours, more time than budget on jobs. Too much interference with being at home with entire family, nice weather, not working.”
“Hard to focus. Hard to schedule routine. Hard to interact with staff, since they are not quite as immediately accessible.”
“Not all our office functions are capable of remote access.”
“Can't build rapport with clients in a phone call as easily.”
“Being home with wife and segregating work.”
“The anguish of clients.”
“Just routine and family is around, so have students studying, dog roaming in and out, spouse asking questions.”
“Believe it or not—printing capabilities”
“Files and equipment are in the office and are too voluminous to move.”
“Working on-line with older clients is especially difficult due to some not utilizing media platforms.”
“The toll in terms of physical and mental energy from being locked into technology at such a higher, more intense and relentless level. Making sure to take breaks, counteract the curl over the keyboard. Witnessing and notarizing documents remotely.”
“Being able to work at home as a single father, and also home school my daughter at the same time.”