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By David GordonDirector, Eaton Vance Advisor Institute

Changing family dynamics during the pandemic may have encouraged clients to rethink their succession and estate plans. Whether it's a fresh glimpse of our own mortality or a new appreciation of a supportive family member, shifting perspectives can be just the impetus clients need to review their documents and clarify their intentions.

You have an important role to play here - even if you are not a legal advisor or estate planner. You likely speak with your clients on a regular basis, which puts you in the best position to ask questions to help the families you serve improve legacy outcomes in the face of estate tax issues.

We often get so caught up in the details of how an estate will be divided that we forget to ask about the basics:

  • "Who have you named as executor(s), and why?" "Who have you named as contingent executor(s), and why?"
  • "Have you asked the executor(s) and contingent executor(s) if they are willing to accept this responsibility?"
  • "Have you discussed your choices and reasons with family members you didn't choose for this responsibility?"

The choice of contingent executor or contingent agent may be even more important than the choice of executor. Why? Most clients choose a spouse as executor, and that's natural because spouses know one another's wishes and intentions and are also often the primary beneficiary of the will.

In the immediate aftermath of a death, however, the surviving spouse may be far too distraught to handle executor duties; the contingent executor - the backup plan - will have to step in and protect the interests of heirs in the face of estate taxes.

Encourage your clients to speak with executors and contingent executors when drafting their wills. If named executors decline to perform these duties when called upon, the court may end up determining disposition of assets - and reducing the estate tax burden will likely not be the priority.

Bottom line: You can be the key catalyst for these conversations - and, when appropriate, bring in the appropriate estate planning experts to redraft documents.