Attorney promotes client maintenance program

By Nora Tooher

Dolan Media Newswires

BOSTON, MA--Vincent E. Bonazzoli thinks he has the solution to one of the biggest problems facing estate planning lawyers - keeping clients' plans up to date.

Many clients, even wealthy ones, pay an estate-planning lawyer to prepare their wills, trusts and other documents. And they never come back.

"Even though people create a plan, the reason why it fails in the end is because they've never updated it," said Bonazzoli, principal of Family Estate Planning Law Group, a two-lawyer firm in Lynnfield, Mass. "They haven't been in touch with the attorney who started the plan."

But getting clients to update their plans isn't easy.

That's why in 2001 Bonazzoli's firm launched a mandatory updating program for all its clients.

The program consists of a periodic review of estate planning documents, asset ownership, client goals and other estate planning matters.

"We won't 'hire' anyone who won't go in our maintenance program," said Bonazzoli, who believes an attorney should only "hire" clients he or she is comfortable working with.

Several estate planning attorneys expressed an interest in the concept, he said, so he started the Client Maintenance Academy to teach the program to other firms.

Attorneys and staff from four firms from around the country attended the first session at a hotel in Lynnfield this spring.

"It's a two-day, intensive program where they bring their team and create their own customized maintenance program," Bonnazzoli explained.

Attorneys trained at the academy will offer updating services they feel are appropriate for their firms, he explained. They will also decide what fees to charge.

Asset tracking is critical

Bonazzoli encourages firms to design plans "based on their resources, based on their values and based on what they think is right for their clients."

To steer them in the right direction, he identifies seven areas - including "access" and "asset tracking" - that an estate planning maintenance program should cover.

Bonazzoli's firm, for example, addresses client access needs by promising to respond to phone calls and e-mails and to meet with clients as needed.

There's also a document status component.

For example, "do you decide to review [the client's estate plan] each year, give a questionnaire each year, or say that every year we're going to revamp the trust for free? What is your follow-up?"

Another essential element of a maintenance program, Bonnazzoli said, is asset tracking: "When somebody dies, the first thing I want to know is: "What do they own, how much, and ... who's the beneficiary?"

Bonazzoli's firm charges new clients a flat price to create their plans, then an annual maintenance fee of $750 to $1,000. Existing clients not on the maintenance program are charged a one-time conversion fee based on several factors, including the age of their plans and the amount of work needed to update them.

For example, he said, "I had someone come in that I had not seen since the late 90s. They had a lot of funding to do and their documents did not have the present state or federal estate tax formulas or the new asset protection language we had developed. Their conversion fee was almost our full price for new estate plans. In addition, their maintenance fee beginning the next calendar year was between $750 and $1,000."

Firms that establish client maintenance programs should generate a minimum of $50,000 additional revenue in the first six months, and more than $10,000 in recurring revenue, according to Bonazzoli.

'Right thing to do'

Guy Garner, a solo estate-planning attorney in Arlington, Texas, attended Bonazzoli's seminar last spring, and has begun implementing his own client maintenance program.

"It's the only way I know you can promise clients that their plan will work when it's needed," he said.

Unlike Bonazzoli, he gives his clients the option of participating in the updating process or opting for traditional document preparation.

Under Garner's "Client Care" program, clients can call him and get a call back without charge. He pledges to periodically update their estate plan as laws change, at no additional cost. Garner also will schedule a meeting with clients' family members to explain the role of an executor or designated health care agent.

Garner said he likes the idea of having an ongoing relationship with clients and their families.

"I want to be a counselor for the family," he said. "To me, it's the right thing to do."

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Published: Thu, Sep 30, 2010