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A Vital Lesson in Estate Planning, Thanks to a Meticulous Client

March 16, 2018

This time we hear from Andrew Crowell, vice chairman of wealth management at Los Angeles-based D.A. Davidson & Co. He tells the story of an unusual estate plan that worked thanks to his client’s careful planning.

Several years ago, I took on a client who had recently retired as general counsel for a large social media company. She worked long hours and lived modestly her entire life, and as a result she’d amassed a small fortune. But she wasn’t married and had no close relatives, and she didn’t know what to do with her assets.

Many clients in her situation would have drawn down their savings right away and spent lavishly. But she was content with how she was living. She had even started doing freelance work to keep her mind active. But when it came to her estate plan, she was at a loss. I encouraged her to think outside the box. In her wildest imagination, what would she most like done with her assets after she died? Dream a little, I told her.

A few months later, she told me she’d come up with a plan. Everything I’d need was in a big red notebook sitting on a bookshelf in her living room. I asked her what was in the notebook, but she refused to say. She said to trust her. And, because I knew she was razor sharp and had probably thought everything through, I did.

A few years later, I got a call from her best friend saying she’d died. This friend and I were the only two people who knew about the red notebook, she said. She had a house key and suggested we meet at my client’s home as soon as possible to find out what the notebook said.

Andrew Crowell

We unlocked the door and stepped inside, and sure enough, prominently displayed on the living-room bookshelf, was this big red notebook. We opened it. Not only had my client gathered all her salient legal documents and account numbers, but she’d written up a detailed set of instructions for hosting what she called a "scavenger wake party." Her friend and I were to send out invitations, which were already written, to friends and colleagues from all corners of her life. At the wake, all of her guests would be allowed to pillage her home for whatever they wanted. There was also a sealed envelope to be opened on the day of the wake.

The wake was one of the most joyful events I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending, and one of the most eclectic gatherings of people I’ve ever seen. We spent the day reminiscing and going through her things. We ended up clearing out about a third of her possessions. At the end of the day, we opened the envelope, and inside were instructions for providing a living income for the remainder of her best friend’s life. Her friend had been caregiving for her ailing husband for the past several years, and now someone was giving back to her. We were all so moved. Whatever money didn’t go to her friend would be directed toward a charitable remainder trust that benefited children.

I was amazed at the creativity of my client’s solution, and at how thoroughly she’d thought everything through. When I thought about it later, I was especially grateful that she’d thought to tell her friend to get in touch with me. If she hadn’t done that, a long time could have passed before I'd even found out she died. For client sensitivity reasons, I’d always hesitated to pursue conversations about friends and loved ones, but now I realized how critical it was to identify an emergency contact early on in the relationship, especially for clients with no close relatives.

As this client taught me, there are plenty of options for people in these situations. The key is to make sure everyone affected by the plan is in contact and on the same page. Now, whenever I meet with a client with no living relatives, I make sure to ask for the name and contact information of someone to get in touch with in case of emergency.