When You Need a Little Estate Planning Therapy

A psychologist may help untangle knotty problems

Benjamin L. Cohen, 76, sold his furniture business in Boston in 1986, moved to Florida, and long ago wrote his will. But last year he realized he wanted to leave something more to his daughter and two teenage grandchildren than money. So, working with clinical psychologist Helene Stein, he wrote a nonbinding "ethical will," in which he described lessons and regrets from his life. "I still know very little about my own parents and their parents," Cohen says, "and I realized how important it is to give my grandchildren this sort of legacy."

For some people, estate planning is a matter of filling out legal documents to settle the matter of who gets what. For others, though, it is a more intimate exercise. Sometimes it involves the desire to pass on a message, as Cohen did in his ethical will. But it also can give rise to delicate questions about family relationships and values. What is the effect of an inheritance on an heir? How do you set up an estate when family members quarrel or have different goals in life?

Such issues may lie beyond the expertise of traditional estate planners and attorneys. So, some of them are hooking up with psychologists who can offer a different perspective on family dynamics and transfer of wealth. Stein, who has a consulting firm called Family Legacy Services, recently signed on with Tanager Associates, a Waltham (Mass.) boutique wealth-management firm, to consult on estate planning issues. In addition to offering one-on-one counseling to clients, as she did to Ben Cohen, she runs group seminars on families in conflict and raising wealthy children, among other topics.

Jonathan Forster, a tax and estate attorney with Greenberg Traurig in Tysons Corner, Va., has teamed up with psychologists to head off the conflicts that arise when a person wants to create an estate plan with strings attached. Forster says that some clients try to make money available to children or relatives based on their net worth, educational achievement, or other specific goals. But, he says, these strategies may not always be wise because they could create resentment among heirs and lead to lawsuits.

ENGAGING. Psychological services are not limited to small firms. Citibank Private Bank, which takes on clients who have at least $3 million in investable assets, has a Family Advisory Practice that includes a full-time staff psychologist. While other Citibank experts handle the technical aspects of money management and estate planning, the Family Advisory Practice steps in when clients need help dealing with difficult or complex interpersonal relationships.

Peter White, who formerly ran a consulting firm that held seminars and retreats for children of wealthy families, heads the group. He says the goal is to engage family members in a dialogue, often about the values and wishes of the person planning the estate. One recent client of White's wanted his son and daughter to take over the management of the family's high-tech company after he died. But the children felt the company's operations were so complex that they didn't have the skills to run it.

White met individually with family members and company execs to acquaint himself with the details of the business, the heirs, and the views of all involved. He then held a meeting where he helped the relatives find common ground. In the end, the family agreed that the children would be the owners but not the managers.

Many people want to leave a legacy that amounts to more than money. Sometimes, simply communicating your wishes to your heirs in writing can achieve that goal. But if you have a large estate or a difficult family situation, a psychological expert might help you come up with strategies for making an often troubling process a little easier.

By Geoffrey Smith

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