Michael Stuart’s estate planning practice focuses on issues far more meaningful than wills, trusts, and tax planning.
By Daniel Slone
Michael Stuart is an attorney, but he is quick to argue that his profession has trained its clients too well. “They think that lawyers draft documents, financial planners build wealth, and CPAs deal with taxes. The problem is that we’ve convinced them that this is all we do.” Stuart argues that clients are better served when professionals dispense with what he terms “siloed thinking” and instead dig deeper into the motivations that underlie the client’s wishes. “I take a different tack: Rather than just trying to solve whatever problem the client presents, I ask why they want to resolve that particular issue. What’s the impact on their family?”
Stuart’s unconventional approach results in questions one doesn’t normally expect to hear from an attorney. Who were the angels and heroes in your life? What was it like growing up? What kind of family life did you have? Are there spirituality practices in your family? What lifetime experiences have you had? What charitable impulses do you have? Answering those foundational questions enables an otherwise dry legal document to express the client’s legacy. It is no secret that, all too often, inherited money tears a family apart. Stuart’s practice is instead about helping the family understand that there is more at stake than just the money. “The ultimate goal is to enhance family relationships to make the transition easier, more affordable, and more beneficial and valuable to the people we serve. If we can help them understand that there is more to this than just the money, we can focus on their hopes and dreams and put that into the documents.”
Such divergence from the traditional approach to estate planning begs the question of what led Stuart down this path. “I always wanted to be a person who people could turn to — a resource in their time of need, someone who could address their deepest needs — and build a long-term relationship with,” he explains. “But everyone said I couldn’t do that; I needed to do probate court and court calls and all those things that are traditionally part of this job. All I knew was that as I dealt with clients, something was missing — something I couldn’t quite identify.”
One Letter Changed Everything
A bundle of his father’s papers, found in his stepsister’s basement, solved the riddle for Stuart. “My dad died when I was 11, so I never truly got to know him,” he explains. “I often thought that if he had written me a letter, telling me his hopes and dreams and wisdom, I would have read that letter a million times.” It turned out that among the papers was a letter that Stuart’s father had written to his own father at the age of 20. “The letter began, ‘Dear Papa, I can no longer live at home; we fight too much. This is the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write. Don’t try to find me.’ I was in tears as I read on, and ultimately it led me to a realization.”
Stuart had recognized a new paradigm. “I started asking my clients about that letter that I wished I had from my own father: ‘If you could capture your hopes and dreams and wisdom for your kids, what would you tell them?’ That question changed my relationship with my clients.” An attorney can create a trust that will last for 100, even 500, years, but there also needs to be some way of passing down guidance. “How else can your descendants know what you intended for the wealth you created and passed down?” Stuart points out.
Stuart offers the example of one family who had been clients for 20 years. The parents — both of whom had passed away — had purchased land, and now the question of what to do with it had arisen. “I sat down with their children, all now in their fifties. When I asked what their parents had intended for the land, they explained that they had a vision that the land would remain in the family. Yet there were about 25-30 grandchildren who would one day inherit shares of the land.” It was clear that without a long-term solution, eventually someone would want to sell, at best breaking up the land and at worst tearing the family apart. “I had them draft a legacy statement that explained what they thought their parents would have wanted for the land and then created a family board of directors to make future decisions about the property guided by that intent.”
Sometimes the needs are more simple — just to capture a snapshot of a person for descendants who may never know him. “I had a couple who were clients. The husband was just a really nice guy, salt of the earth, but he was suffering from a long-term terminal illness. One day at my office he was reminiscing about his military service, saying how much he had enjoyed it, and he started telling stories. Before long, I noticed that his wife was in tears. When I asked her what was wrong, she said that she had never heard those stories before.” Stuart offered to come to their home and record his story to preserve those memories. “It was moving and emotional and wonderful, all at the same time, to be able to give the family something that they can share forever.”
Obstacles to a Purposeful Financial Legacy
Asked what sorts of obstacles he encounters in his practice, Stuart readily names two: fear and control. “I find that things that happened 35 years ago come up when we start talking about legacy planning. I’ve literally had kids who were in their fifties arguing about things that happened when they were teenagers but were just never resolved. I honestly think that a lot of these family meetings should be held with a psychologist there who can spot these issues and deal with them.” The question of who will have control of the estate often arises and can make for heated disputes — sometimes while one parent is still alive. “I had a family with five kids whose father had passed away. The oldest son was a CPA, and his brother was a financial planner. They sat for 20 minutes arguing about who would control their mother’s finances, in front of me — and their mother.” The fear of “losing out” is unfortunately all too common.
Stuart also insists that family meetings regarding estate issues should be just that — a family meeting, meaning no spouses, no children. “The siblings can argue and ultimately decide things, but people from outside the family shouldn’t be involved in those decisions.”
Stuart envisions a day when the standard in his profession can be legacy planning, not tax planning or estate planning. “I’d like to see the industry as a whole talk more about legacy. Some lawyers are starting to include it, but adoption has been slow. It’s time to replace How much money do I have? with What good things can my money do? How can it make lives better?”
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As the founder and visionary of a thriving law firm, The Stuart Legacy Alliance, LLC, Michael Stuart has also co-founded a multi-disciplinary consulting firm, The Family Legacy Alliance, LLC (FLA), which seeks to collaboratively combine varied disciplines from estate planning to psychology to better serve clients’ needs. Mr. Stuart has developed a process that professionals and business owners can use to guide them through the complex issues they face during transition. It is FLA’s goal to help them achieve their personal and financial goals and gain peace of mind. As a holistic estate planner, Michael works in concert with his clients’ financial advisors, CPAs, insurance advisors, and other financial and legal professionals to ensure that all plans developed truly have the clients’ goals and objectives in mind.