Collaborative Teamwork in Estate and Trusts Frequently Asked Questions By Nancy J. Ross, LCSW, BCD
Why create a Collaborative team for those who need to plan for their
wills and trusts?
Most clients enter the estate and
trust arena with the same fears we all have when it comes to discussing money
and death. Sometimes they have good reasons for not discussing their plans.
With some families, the result would not be a productive discussion. However,
for most people, their fear is far greater than the reality. Most trust and
estate lawyers recognize this and are experts at helping their clients through
the difficult task of creating a document that expresses their wishes. They
generally don’t, however, venture into the territory of helping their clients
talk directly with their family members. Family therapists, who are trained in
helping families effectively communicate and problem-solve together are skilled
in this area and can help families discuss and resolve even the most difficult
problems both pre-mortem and post-mortem.
What is different about including a family therapist in the role of a
Traditionally, families either
haven’t seen the need or don’t understand the value of utilizing a mental
health professional to prevent (or manage) the emotional problems that
inevitably accompany the specter of death or the results of its aftermath. If
the family did consult with a therapist, it wasn’t to prevent problems but
instead to address mental health issues already present. Involving an
experienced family therapist who could work closely with the lawyer during the
planning or after the death has not been seen as an option. In addition,
therapists, if they were involved at all, kept their work confidential as did
the lawyer; neither talked with the other.
The idea that the lawyer and
therapist could share information that would benefit the client as well as
his/her family is a relatively new one. With the lawyer and the mental health
professional working together, sharing information, and strategizing on how
best to help the family, the client gets the best of both worlds; expertise at creating
an estate plan while helping them face the challenges of actually talking about
their wishes with their loved ones ahead of time or helping emotionally wrought
family members after a death maintain their relationships with each other and
minimize costly, destructive, legal actions.
What exactly do these Communication Coaches do?
They meet with the client(s) to
assess the family dynamics and focus on the unique challenges their particular
family faces. They will strategize with the client(s) on effective ways of
beginning their difficult conversations. Working closely with the family’s
estate / trust lawyer, if appropriate, they then may facilitate open dialogues
amongst family members that help them create a more trusting environment. In
this way, family members can explore any fears or family history that may be
impeding their discussions or address particular issues that the clients have
not been able to resolve. A couple, for example, may be struggling with how to
“fairly” distribute their wealth among their children, some of whom may get an
“unequal” share of their parent’s estate due to one child’s mental illness or
chemical dependency. The family therapist will create a structure and a road map
for the family to tackle these challenging issues with a goal that leads the
family toward effective problem solving. The goal is always to find ways to
preserve family relationships.
Won’t clients be wary of being referred to a “mental health
Collaboratively trained mental
health professionals wear many hats, from Divorce Coach to Family
Facilitator/Communication Coach. It is the latter designation that seems to fit
the family estates and trusts model. Having the role described as one where a
trained professional helps the family actually talk aboutdifficult topics and prevent problems, makes
it easier for lawyers to present the idea. The goal is not “therapy” in a
traditional sense, but rather about having a licensed professional who is
trained in Collaborative work, who has a background in family dynamics, and is
knowledgeable about the developmental stages of the family, be able to
facilitate discussions in ways that are productive for the family going
What are the qualifications of the Communication Coach? Can anyone just
hang out a shingle?
The qualifications for
Communication Coach are the same ones that the International Academy of
Collaborative Professionals (IACP) requires for Mental Health Professionals who
serve as Divorce Coaches in the interdisciplinary Collaborative Divorce
process. They are required to have a professional state license for their
discipline and be in good standing with their respective professional
organizations. They need to be a member in good standing in IACP and belong to
a local practice group. In addition, they need 12 hours of Interdisciplinary
Collaborative Training, a minimum of 30 hours of mediation training, 15 further
hours in interest based negotiations, communication skills, and additional
Collaborative training or basic professional coach training. Within their
discipline, they need to have training and experience in the individual and
family life cycle and development, assessment of individual and family
strengths, assessment and challenges of family dynamics in separation and
In addition, since the field of
trusts and estates differs in many ways from divorce, they need to have an
in-depth knowledge of family dynamics when facing death / dying as well as
issues specific to trusts and estates. They also need to be familiar with the
language of the field to be able to work effectively with lawyers.
What if the client is sensitive to spending money and resists the idea
of involving a Communication Coach?
Most lawyers find that when they
explain what the Communication Coach actually does and describes his/her
experiences in working with this model, clients intuitively understand the
benefits of including a mental health professional. Often lawyers will suggest
that the individual or couple meet with a Communication Coach just once to see
if it would be helpful. Clients often find benefit in just one meeting and, of
course, they always have the option of deciding whether or not to work with the
professional at all.
What are some of the other roles the Collaborative mental health professionals
play in the Trust and Estate arena?
Depending on their training and
professional experience, they may also serve as Elder Specialists. In this
role, they may be consultants to the lawyer, the family, work directly with one
or both clients, or provide appropriate resources for the client / family to
help cope with specific age-related issues.
In case specific situations, where
the heirs are polarized, it may be appropriate for each of them to have their
own collaboratively trained Coach. In this situation, the coaches meet with
each person(s) separately and obtain their goals and concerns, while working
with them to effectively and non-defensively present their views. Then, in
larger group meetings, all of the heirs meet together with their coaches to
problem solve and resolve difficult issues.
Ideally, in each of these scenarios
described above, the Lawyer may choose to be present providing his / her
expertise while working alongside the Mental Health Professional in helping the
family understand the issues from a legal standpoint.